Aug. 26, 2002
There's an old adage that goes something like this: once you've reached the top, there is no place to go but down. For the 2002 UC Santa Barbara men's soccer team, that isn't so.
In 2001, the Gauchos won the Big West Conference Championship, but their reward was a snubbing by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. So while some may think UCSB is at the top, the Gauchos beg to differ. Left with a sour taste in their mouths, they still have something to prove.
The snubbing by the NCAA committee is serving as motivation for the 2002 version of Gaucho soccer. Head coach Tim Vom Steeg describes the 2002 Gauchos as a "Team on a Mission".
"It is our goal to repeat as Big West Conference Champions," Vom Steeg assured, adding, "and get the experience of playing in the NCAA Tournament."
As the defending conference champions, a repeat performance will be a much more difficult task. Unlike last year where UCSB was expected to finish in the middle of the pack, this year every team in the Big West will be gunning for the defending champs.
"We need to get better as a team to repeat the success of last season, but I am confident we can do that," commented Vom Steeg.
With some key new players and the return of eight starters from last year's squad, including five all-conference honorees, the 2002 Gauchos appear to have taken the necessary steps to improve and repeat as Big West Champions. The coaching staff says that this year's team is a much more complete team that in years past. "We have so many weapons that will allow us to beat teams in so many different ways." said Vom Steeg.
The Gauchos will look to last season's Big West Co-Offensive Player of the Year and scoring champion, senior Rob Friend, to be the key element in their offensive attack. At 6'4", 205 pounds Friend is a powerful forward with tremendous ability in the air, giving UCSB a physical presence on the forward line. Complimenting Friend up front will be another all-conference player in sophomore Drew McAthy who, as a freshman last season, finished second on the team in scoring.
Vom Steeg will also be looking for production out of junior Gene Deering and sophomore Matt Bly. Deering, who had his 2001 season cut short due to injury, will be seeing a lot of time when he has fully recovered, while Bly has had a tremendous off-season and could be a big threat in 2002.
The midfield is where the most dramatic improvements were made during the off-season, in hopes of increasing the Gauchos' scoring output. The middle of the field is also where most of the new incoming players will be seeing their playing time.
Moving up from defense to play an attacking midfielder is junior Neil Jones whose natural ability and aggressiveness are better suited up front. Joining Jones as an attacking midfielder is Memo Arzate, a junior transfer from Compton College where he amassed 63 points just last season. "Having Jones and Arzate gives me two offensive midfielders who should ease the pressure on our forwards," Vom Steeg stated. "That is something I have not had in my coaching career at UCSB."
The biggest competition for a starting job is at the left midfielder position where three returning players, all of whom saw significant playing time last year, are vying for the starting spot. What could happen is that juniors Darren Doi and Matt Kubota and sophomore Jon Apilado will play the position by committee depending on what type of lineup the Gauchos go with.
On the right side will be junior David McGill, a transfer from UNC-Charlotte, who gives the Gauchos a physical presence in the midfield. McGill should help balance UCSB's attack as most of its production last year came from the left side. McGill might also spend some time on defense in certain situations, which would free up the right wing spot for one of three freshman, Jeff Murphy, Corey Wood or John Claydon.
The starting defensive midfielders will be All-Big West senior Dan Young, who will be expected to be the Gauchos "field general," and sophomore Nate Boyden. Boyden's ability to spread the ball around the field should help open up UCSB's offensive attack.
It will be a transition year for a defense that was the best in the Big West and one of the top-25 in the nation last season. Playing a straight-four defense last year, Vom Steeg and assistant coach Leo Chappel have elected to go with only three defenders this season. With that, the key to the success of the defense in 2002 is how well the defense plays as a unit and how well the entire team defends as a whole.
With the departure of Jones to the midfield and losing two others to graduation, the only player returning to the defense from last season is sophomore all-conference honoree Tony Lochhead. After spending much of last year in a more midfield-type role, Lochhead will be able to focus exclusively on defense where the coaching staff feels he at his strongest.
Anchoring the defensive line is, quite possibly, UCSB's biggest off-season acquisition, freshman Alan Keely out of Dublin, Ireland. Regarded as one of Ireland's top junior players he gives the Gauchos the dominant and intelligent player in the middle needed with a three person defensive unit.
Senior Brandon Meeks, junior Pete O'Hare and redshirt freshman Pat Scott are battling for the starting spot on the right side. Similar to the situation with the left side midfielders, the right fullback position could be played by committee depending on what type of lineup the coaching staff decides to use.
You would think that when you return an all-conference goalkeeper he is a shoe-in for the starting job, not so for the Gauchos. While Danny Kennedy, who was one of, if not the top goalie in the Big West last year, will get the starting job, it is a pair of true freshman battling for the backup role that will force Kennedy to improve to retain his starting spot. "Kennedy already has a year of experience at this level," began Vom Steeg, "and that is going to make him tough to beat."
Freshman Kyle Reynish and Justin Pugh are both young and aggressive keepers with substantial size. Reynish is 6'3" and Pugh stands 6'1" and both closing in on 200 pounds. Should the situation arise, Vom Steeg feels that either of the two could step between the posts and help the Gauchos succeed.
The tools, the expectation and the motivation are there, what the success of the 2002 Men's Soccer team hinges upon is making sure the execution follows.