Oct. 1, 2009
UCSB's soccer class of 2004 would do anything to get onto the field, even if it required an ambulance ride.
All-America goalkeeper Danny Kennedy once had to be cut out of his wrecked automobile before he could make it to Harder Stadium, the victim of a drunken, wrong-way freeway driver who had hit him head-on.
"I was about 10 minutes behind him, and when I drove up they still hadn't gotten Danny out of the car," said Drew McAthy, the Gauchos' All-America forward. "Danny told me later, 'Look, I'm going to have to tape up my hands because I still have glass in them ... I'll have to see how they feel during warmups. But I can move a little bit.'
"I knew right then that he'd be ready to go."
The bruised and bloody keeper of the faith led his team past the University of New Mexico just a few hours later.
If you want to understand how UCSB's now 11th-ranked program made it onto the soccer map, you must retrace Kennedy's route. It began for him in 2001 as one of seven freshman starters and ended with a penalty-kick shootout loss to Indiana in the 2004 NCAA final at the Home Depot Center.
And with only a brief stop on U.S. 101.
"I think all the time about those two games in the College Cup," said Kennedy, now a goalkeeper for Chivas USA. "It's hard not to be reminded of them, working out now at the Home Depot Center.
"But the biggest feeling that comes back to me is just the experience of being with that group of guys. We all became so very close during those years in Santa Barbara, and we still are."
And so nothing will keep him from rejoining most of those teammates on Friday at 8 p.m. for UCSB's nationally televised rematch with No. 9 Indiana.
The 2004 club will be honored with both a pregame reception and halftime ceremony.
Neil Jones, an All-Big West Conference forward in 2004 and now a UCSB assistant coach, said head coach Tim Vom Steeg wants the current Gauchos to think about 2004 as often as Kennedy does.
"He's referred to that team a lot to the guys, even during our first meeting way back in August," Jones said. "He said they're the team he wanted the 2009 Gauchos to try to identify with.
"He obviously has fond memories of that group, and he's been trying to instill parts of their attitude and work rate in this team."
The 2004 Gauchos played soccer with a chip on their shoulder. It was put there during their freshman year when they were denied an NCAA Tournament berth despite an 11-5-3 record and Big West Conference championship.
"Soccer was new to the Big West then and we didn't get an automatic berth like we do now," Jones said. "We were the only champion out of 24 conferences that didn't get into the playoffs."
The snub carried into UCSB's workouts for the next three years.
"Every training session was a war, which is a little different than what I've seen since I've been here as a coach," Jones said. "We trained as if it were a game, and every drill a competition, and that translated to the field in the games."
The Gauchos often brawled with each other during these sessions, as brothers often do.
"I once even got into it with Rob Friend, and he was my roommate," Jones said. "We didn't talk to each other for two days."
The Gauchos were even perceived in some circles as soccer bullies. It became a national conversation after they beat Indiana during a midseason tournament, ending the Hoosiers' 23-game unbeaten streak and earning UCSB a No. 1 national ranking for the next nine weeks.
Soccer America soon ran an article that quoted Indiana coach Mike Freitag as saying, "It's just a shame that a team like that is ranked No. 1."
"It's not the physical stuff that bothers me," Freitag continued. "It's the stuff off the ball, there's a lack of class. Every time there's a foul, kicking the ball away . . . They come with an attitude."
Jones admits that the 2004 Gauchos carried themselves in a different way than most teams.
"We definitely had an attitude, and everyone hated us for the way we played, but we couldn't stop it," he said. "We might not have been most skilled team in the country that year, but we were by far the most hard-working and the toughest.
"In all honesty, we just played a way that they couldn't play against."
Two weeks after the article was published, UCSB received only a No. 9 seeding for the NCAA Tournament.
"We actually enjoyed that," Jones said. "It gave us more anger and ammunition to show how good we really were."
But the Gauchos' reputation preceeded them in a negative way for their Sweet 16 match at North Carolina-Greensboro. The referee ejected Jones with two yellow cards during the first six minutes after he twice collided with the goalkeeper while attempting a header.
"I think the ref was told about our style and was looking to call it," Jones said. "I thought they were bad calls."
Despite playing with one less man, UCSB battled the highest-scoring offense in the country to a scoreless draw until the Gauchos' Matt Bly netted a golden goal during the fourth minute of overtime.
"He stepped up and saved my life," Jones said. "I had visions of the plane ride home and everyone blaming me for ending our season.
"I actually live with Matt now, and I'm constantly thanking him for saving my life."
The ejection meant that Jones would also have to sit out the NCAA quarterfinal against Virginia Commonwealth. But he knew his teammates wouldn't need much help while watching a school-record 11,214 fans surge into Harder Stadium - a mark they hope to break on Friday.
"I had no doubts at that point about our going to the Final Four," he said.
McAthy didn't realize how large the crowd had become until midway through the first half.
"I remember looking up and seeing all those people, and how surreal it all felt," he said. "But it didn't really hit me until the final whistle blew and they all rushed the field. It was actually kind of scary.
"I couldn't even find my own teammates. I just got lost in the melee."
UCSB fans also packed into the Home Depot Center for the College Cup, inspiring the Gauchos to a 5-0 rout of Duke in the semifinals.
"The NCAA games leading up to that were so stressful, we were scoring goals in overtime just to advance," Kennedy said. "Sometimes there is so much anxiety that you can't really enjoy it.
"But I remember standing back there in the Duke game, with everything going our way, and just taking in as much as I could. That still flashes back into my mind."
Indiana had played a double-overtime semifinal against Maryland and was wearing down late in its final against UCSB. The Hoosiers began holding on for dear life after McAthy, the College Cup's Most Outstanding Offensive Player, tied the match at 1 by scoring with nine minutes to go.
"You could tell they were hunkering down, getting everybody behind the ball, saying, 'Let's just hold on until we get to PKs,' " Jones said.
When the match came down to the shootout, Kennedy learned that his college career was already over. The Gauchos decided to go with backup Kyle Reynish, who at 6-foot-4 was three inches taller than his All-College Cup teammate.
"All the air went out of me, literally - I couldn't believe it," Kennedy said. "I kept running back and forth between the goalkeeper coach and the head coach, trying to negotiate my way back out there."
Reynish actually stopped two of Indiana's shots, but UCSB still lost the shootout, 3-2.
"You can't miss three PKs and expect to win a shootout," Jones said.
It was a tearful end to many of their college careers.
McAthy played two years of pro soccer, the last one for the Portland Timbers, before deciding to hang up his cleats for good and take a job in San Francisco.
But soon after his move, while sitting in his Bay Area apartment, McAthy realized that they'd left something enduring on the field. It hit him as he watched the telecast of UCSB's victory over UCLA in St. Louis for the 2006 NCAA championship.
"I knew a decent amount of the guys on that team, had played with several of them," he said. "And there was no question that we had paved the way for them."
Sometimes it can be all about the journey, crashes and all.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org