September 23, 2010

Baby Cakes on Board: Big win led by Forgotten Gaucho

Sept. 23, 2010

There is a new nameplate above the second cubicle inside Harder Stadium's soccer locker room. All it says is "Baby Cakes."

Senior forward Joe Eubanks is no baby at age 21, and his UCSB experience has been anything but cake after five knee surgeries, but it still made perfect sense.

After three lost years, Baby Cakes finally arrived as a Gaucho last week while leading UCSB to its first two wins of the season at New Mexico's Lobo Classic.

"I don't know where Joe's head was at, but I thought he was done - just done," coach Tim Vom Steeg confessed. "I mean, he's a great kid, and we wanted to keep him here as a part of our team. But Joe was probably the only one around here who thought he'd still be able to contribute."

But the veteran coach was in desperate need of somebody - anybody - who could jump-start the winless Gauchos as they struggled through the first 30 minutes of a scoreless match against sixth-ranked Harvard.

And when he began scanning his bench, Vom Steeg's eyes settled on the one player that he'd never expected to still be there.

"I just felt like, at that point, I needed someone to go to battle for us," Vom Steeg said. "And Joe Eubanks was the one guy on our roster who'd battled through the most to even get there."

Eubanks sat out his first two years at UCSB with a knee injury that his coach considered "career-ending." He made four token appearances last year while playing on basically one leg.

He hadn't played at all through the first four games of this season - two losses and two ties which had knocked the Gauchos out of the national rankings.

"Yeah, I was a little surprised ... but I was pretty happy when he called my name," Eubanks said.

And then it happened, with less than three minutes to go in the first half. Forward Sam Garza got the ball and slipped a cross to Eubanks just inside the box.

"I was one-on-one with the keeper," he said. "Looking back on it, I was surprised that I was so calm. I'm not always relaxed when I'm in the box, but I was confident and patient and took the shot when I needed to."

But remaining calm and confident and patient are why Joe Eubanks is still a Gaucho - and so he drilled the shot with authority into the bottom left corner of the goal.

"It was the most important goal of the season, to be honest with you," Vom Steeg said. "We hadn't scored first on a team all year, and it really took the pressure off everybody."

UCSB added another goal in the second half for a 2-0 win, and then blasted Buffalo 4-0 on Sunday.

It was what Eubanks had envisioned when he was an Olympic Development Program star in Colorado, signing with the Gauchos the year they won the NCAA championship.

"I remember coming out for my visit, and seeing how big the atmosphere surrounding the program was," he said. "I came to the Michigan game when I was a senior in high school, and there's nothing quite like it in the rest of the country."

Vom Steeg considered it a recruiting coup when Eubanks signed with UCSB.

"He was captain of the Region 4 team and one of the top 20-24 players coming out of high school," he said. "He was 6-foot-3 and ran really well - more of a line-surging player who would make his runs out wide."

But Eubanks suffered a major knee injury while playing in the regional semifinals of the national club tournament less than two months before he enrolled at UCSB. It was such an extensive injury that he eventually had all the cartilage removed and underwent experimental surgery.

"They took cells out and grew them in a lab, and then implanted them into my knee," Eubanks said. "It took about two years to fully come back."

But even after he returned last year, the knee would swell after every practice and match.

"We turned him into a forward," Vom Steeg said. "We figured that his days of running by people out wide were gone forever."

Eubanks still gutted through his junior year. He even pushed in the game-winning goal after Danny Barrera's corner kick in a 2-1, double-overtime, exhibition win over Mexico's U-17 team. He netted another goal to cap a 3-0 win at UC Davis.

"I went in with six minutes left," Eubanks recalled.

They were his only shots of the season in four games. But he still wanted another shot at the career he envisioned while watching the Gauchos' 2006 NCAA title run.

"I did the weights in the summer and it really helped me out, and I did a lot of training during the summer to get where I'm at right now," Eubanks said. "I feel as good as I'm going to feel. I'm 100 percent right now."

Eubanks paid Vom Steeg a visit last week after starting forward Michael Nonni went down with an ankle sprain during practice.

"He didn't barge into the office," his coach recalled. "He just said, 'Listen, I only want you to know that if you need me, I'm here, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get a goal for this team."

Eubanks, the son of Jerry and Victoria Eubanks, set off a big family celebration in Albuquerque after doing just that on Friday.

"A lot of my family came down because they're from Denver - it's about 450 miles away - and my aunt lives in New Mexico," he said. "My dad was pretty excited. We all went to a restaurant afterward and Dad paid for everyone."

The team reacted to Eubanks' goal as though it were to win the College Cup.

"He's a complete team guy, and no one has invested more for the chance to be on this roster," Vom Steeg said. "He's been battling to get out there, and the guys have seen him doing that."

Peter McGlynn was so excited that he logged onto Eubanks' Facebook account to announce the news:

"He updated my status and wrote, 'That goal was dedicated to my girlfriend,' " Eubanks said, referring to UCSB women's soccer player Alyssa Oldham. "And then he said, 'Love you! - Baby Cakes.'"

A nickname was born. The coaching staff had the new nameplate made as soon as they returned to Santa Barbara.

"We told everyone that we wanted to get everyone's names right when the newspaper reporters and TV cameras show up," Vom Steeg said.

It was the icing on the new start for UCSB's Baby Cakes.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com