Aug. 21, 2010
Sam Garza felt the world at his feet when he began a new soccer season for Denver University last fall.
The sophomore forward had just gotten his invitation back to the national Under-20 team as he took the field against North Carolina State.
"I'd made the final cut," Garza recalled, "and I was soon going to head out to Cypress College for minicamp."
Then, in an instant, his world was cut out from under him.
"He was collecting a ball, and a defender went right through the back of his knee," UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said. "And he heard it pop."
Pop went the anterior cruciate ligament. Pop went the 2009 season. Pop went the national team.
The pop echoed inside Garza's head all throughout the fall and spring after he returned to Lewisville, Texas, having put Denver behind him for good.
"Those were dark times for me," he said. "I was really sad, not being able to play."
But the sun did shine again for Sam Garza. It happened the moment he arrived in Santa Barbara on July 14 as the newest star for the eighth-ranked Gauchos.
"The first day I got here, I went on a run along the beach," he said. "I watched the sun set.
"I couldn't stop smiling that first day. And every night before I go to bed, I just thank God that I am here, and that He led me on this path to where I am now."
That path leads to Harder Stadium tonight at 7 when UCSB plays its exhibition opener against Westmont College.
Three of those dark days a week last year were spent rehabilitating his knee, but Garza also looked for a new school.
"It'd always been my dream to play for a top Division I team," he said.
Garza was told he could find one at UCSB by Gauchos midfielder Christian Dahlskog, his former teammate at Texas' Edward S. Marcus High School.
"Christian is my best friend, and he's still going to school here even though he's not playing anymore," Garza said. "With the national championship they won in 2006, they set the standard as one of the top teams in the country.
"This is also a beautiful place, a beautiful area. It's an amazing team. Great players. I mean, what more could you want? It's awesome to be here."
Awesome was a word that came to Greg Wilson's mind as the UCSB assistant coach saw Garza try out for the U-20 team two years ago.
"Greg was watching him down in Florida, and someone with the national team said, 'Are you kidding me? That guy is just tearing up our defense,'" Vom Steeg said.
Garza was soon picking on other teams, too, scoring the lone goal for the U.S. in a 1-0 victory over Canada.
"It was my first camp, in Sunrise, Fla.," he recalled. "After that, they just kept calling me back to the camps. I kept doing well with the 20s, and I made it to the World Cup qualifying down in Trinidad and Tobago."
Wilson's recommendation wasn't the only good word that Vom Steeg received about Garza.
"When his decision to come to UCSB made the newspaper and the Internet, I got an e-mail from the general manger in charge of player development for the New York Red Bulls," he said. "He told me, 'That's a very, very good pickup for you guys, especially with the way you guys play.'"
Vom Steeg still had to wonder if he'd be getting the same Sam Garza.
"He was coming off a knee injury, and there were some question marks about where he might be with that," he said. "But he's literally been better than advertised. He's really good.
"He's a fun guy to play with because he's a tireless worker. I have to think back to when we had a true slashing player up front that will look for spots like he does, and look to run through. We just haven't had a player like him.
"This is the guy we needed."
UCSB returns nine of 11 starters from last year's NCAA Sweet 16 team, but one of the departing seniors was forward David Walker, their leading scorer.
The Gauchos got a speedy runner to replace Walker, and Garza doesn't even need a brace to support his surgically repaired knee.
But Vom Steeg still wondered how long it would take him to mesh with a star-studded midfield that includes preseason All-American Danny Barrera, fellow all-Big West veterans Luis Silva and Michael Tetteh, and returning all-freshman selection Machael David.
So far, so good, Garza said.
"Speed is my main attribute, so they're playing balls over the top and making runs. I'm really looking forward to playing with them."
Garza admits to having dreams about the 2012 Olympics and professional soccer, but he's mostly just glad to get this wakeup call in Santa Barbara.
"My goal right now is just to get to the College Cup with the Gauchos," he said. "That's an awesome challenge, and it'd be just an amazing feat.
"That's the big reason I'm here."
He knew there would be a new day for him in Santa Barbara. He could see it with the first sunset.
Mark Patton's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: email@example.com
Season tickets for the 2010 soccer season are still available. All season ticket packages include tickets for the 2010 Men's College Cup, which is being hosted by UCSB on Dec. 10-12 at Meredith Field at Harder Stadium. Individual season tickets start at just $75 and include one ticket to all home men and women's regular season games and one 2010 Men's College Cup all-session ticket. UCSB staff and faculty can purchase their season tickets for a reduced rate of $50.
To purchase your tickets for the 2010 soccer season or for more information, please call (805) 893-UCSB, visit the Ticket Office located inside the Intercollegiate Athletics building on campus or buy online by clicking here.