Dec. 8, 2004
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -
On Saturday night, Neil Jones' UC Santa Barbara soccer teammates walked out through the tunnel at Harder Stadium. Moving single-file, side-by-side with their counterparts from Virginia Commonwealth, the eleven starters made their way to the center of the playing field to prepare for introductions. The reserves for each side went to their respective benches.
Jones, the Gauchos second-leading scorer, went neither to the center of the field or the bench. Instead, he headed across the field, jumped over the short fence that separates the fans from the playing surface, and climbed the stadium stairs and into the press box, high atop the stands.
Jones was serving a mandatory one-match suspension after receiving a red card in UCSB's previous contest, a 1-0 overtime win at North Carolina-Greensboro six days earlier. He had been in the same situation before during his Gaucho career, so it was nothing new.
Actually, it was something new. Jones had been in the same situation before, but it wasn't exactly the same situation. Every other time it had happened, he knew there would be another game, another tomorrow. This time, there was no guarantee. This, after all, was not just any match, it was an NCAA Championship Quarterfinal match. A loss and that's that.
"It drove me crazy to be in the press box. I was obviously disappointed, and still very angry, about Greensboro," Jones said of his red card. "It would have been absolutely terrible to end my career in the stands. It has been a great four years, and to lose in front of that crowd (11,214) with me sitting in the press box would have been a huge disappointment."
While Jones sat and watched nervously during the match, he tried to help in any way he could leading up to the match.
"All week I was trying to help the young guys," Jones recalled. "I knew I couldn't really play a part in the game, so I was trying to help out any way I could. Whether it was giving advice or leadership, or just helping someone out on something they needed to work on throughout the week. On game day I was especially trying to calm the nerves."
Jones found it more difficult to calm his own nerves as he sat and watched the Gauchos fall behind 1-0 in the early minutes of the match against the Rams.
"It was tough to watch," he said. "When they went ahead I just leaned back, closed my eyes and thought `oh no'. But I knew we would come back, we've been doing it all year and this team doesn't quit."
UCSB tied the score midway through the first half on a goal by freshman defender Andy Iro. Jones cheered the goal, but settled down after being reminded about press box etiquette. He breathed a bit easier as the teams went to halftime knotted at 1-1.
About 20 minutes into the second half, sophomore midfielder Bryan Byrne put the Gauchos in front 2-1, sending the crowd into a frenzy and Jones - now up-to-snuff on press box etiquette - out the door to cheer. However, Jones didn't breath easier until a goal by Andrew Proctor in the 82nd minute put the Gauchos up 3-1.
"It was a relief when Proctor's goal went in," Jones remembered. "At 3-1 with eight minutes to go, I knew the game was over. At 2-1, you never know. They could sneak a goal in and its 2-2 and you go to overtime, and then it's like the lottery, anything can happen. From Proctor's goal to the end of the game, to now, it has been nothing but excitement."
In the 85th minute, Iro scored his second goal of the match to make the final score 4-1. As the final minutes and seconds ticked down, Jones left the press box, stopping on the way to hug and hoist UCSB Media Relations Assistant Jeff Bowers. Jones went down the stairs, joining the horde of fans waiting to storm the field.
"When I ran onto the field I thought it would be just me and the players," Jones said. "But obviously that wasn't the case. The players I really wanted to get to were Iro, Drew [McAthy], and Proctor, and all the other guys I felt played really well. Jon Apilado was the first player I got to, and I gave him a big hug. The whole scene was unbelievable."
Jones, a native of Auckland, New Zealand, has played in numerous important matches during his soccer career. He has been a member of New Zealand's World Cup Qualifying Team as well as his nation's Under-17 National Team. He hopes to use his experiences to help his UCSB teammates prepare for their biggest match ever.
"I've played in some big games," commented Jones. "And I have realized that the most important thing is simply to concentrate on doing the simple things right. I also realize that you need to enjoy the circumstance, but not get too caught-up in the moment. I know players who choke in big games, but I just kind of relax and use the crowd's energy to make some extra runs and do some extra stuff. I'm sure there are a lot of guys who haven't played in such big games and I want to be there for them, to try to help them through it if they get nervous, or too excited."
This time, though, Jones will not only have the opportunity to impart his wisdom in the locker room or from the press box. This time, he'll be on the field playing in the College Cup, the Final Four of NCAA soccer.
"When Tim recruited us," Jones began, referring to UCSB head coach Tim Vom Steeg and the other seniors on the team, "he said `this is going to be the class that will take us to a Final Four'. We thought that last year we could get it done, but we didn't quite get there. Every year though, we've gotten a step closer and this year we made it. It will be the end of the road, but we've taken this program to new heights. We want to end with a win in the final. That would be the perfect end to a perfect four years."
Certainly it would be a much better than ending your career sitting in a press box.