August 18, 2009

Gaucho women make their own pitch

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Aug. 18, 2009

By MARK PATTON NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

August 18, 2009 10:08 AM

Jacqui Simon was about to loft a last-minute corner kick toward the goal during UCSB's home soccer opener last year when she heard something else humming in the air.

It sounded like her dreams.

Her kick arrived at about the same time as the fans that were surging into Harder Stadium for the men's match that would follow.

"It was definitely something we noticed," Simon said. "They're rolling in and we're playing a really good team."

Alyssa Benjamin headed Simon's kick to Kylie McDonald, who returned it to Benjamin for the dramatic goal in a 1-0 victory over 25th-ranked San Diego.

The arriving crowd erupted with approval - and for one, glorious moment in Soccer Town USA, the Gaucho women were the talk of the town.

They are now in the driver's seat of the Big West Conference, having been picked to repeat as champions this season, but they still take a back seat in their own stadium to the men.

"There is definitely a little bit of jealousy that they get all the talk," said Simon, a junior co-captain. "But it's deserved. They've won a national championship, and we have to prove ourselves a little bit more to get people to notice us.

"But when we both have a game, the men might get more of a story about it in the school paper. Sometimes we'll say, 'Hey, we have a big game, too.' "

UCSB's men led the nation in collegiate soccer attendance

last year, attracting an average of 3,444 per match. The women didn't draw that many people for their entire season.

"We do get a lot of friends and family to come," Simon said.

They get their fans mostly by word-of-mouth, while the men have already sold more than 500 season tickets for this year.

Crowd control won't be an issue when the UCSB women make their Harder Stadium debut on Thursday in a 7 p.m. exhibition against Westmont College. Their regular-season opener will come at Santa Clara on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Women's coach Paul Stumpf sees the men as nothing but a boon to his own program.

"They've brought a positive light to this university in the soccer community," he said. "Everything they get, we benefit from - the new stadium surface and other upgrades to the facility that are hopefully coming with the Final Four (in 2010).

"We definitely benefit, indirectly."

His players are just as thrilled that the College Cup is coming to Harder Stadium.

"It's going to be great for the school altogether," said Simon, a first-team All-Big West forward. "We do attend the men's matches - we really support them - and they come to our matches, too.

"If we can just get the kind of success that they've had, maybe more people would come to our matches, too."

UCSB men's soccer captured the attention of both town and gown during its 2004 run to the NCAA final, where it lost to Indiana in a penalty-kick shootout at Carson's Home Depot Center. The Gauchos drew a school-record 11,214 for its quarterfinal match that year against Virginia Commonwealth.

They beat UCLA for the NCAA title in 2006 at St. Louis, and they've led the nation in college soccer attendance ever since.

Simon watched the 2006 final on TV - as a redshirt freshman at UCLA. She transferred to UCSB the following year.

"I really didn't know too much about UCSB then," she said. "They recruited me when I was in high school, but all I really knew was that they had a really good women's team way back in the day."

The Gaucho women actually outdrew the men in the 1980s, when future World Cup MVP Carin Jennings (1983-86) made them a regular fixture in the NCAA top 10.

But now the cleats are on the other foot.

Stumpf said UCSB's success in the men's College Cup is only part of the story.

"Their coaches brought in exceptional players and started winning games, but they've also gone into the community in a big way," he said."Tim (Vom Steeg) and Greg (Wilson) and Leo (Chappel) have done a lot with organizing free clinics and camps, where the kids really get to know the players on the field. We do that, too, but not at that scale.

"At the matches, you can hear the kids calling out the players' names. The reason they get such large crowds is that they've worked their tails off to do that."

Simon has noticed familiar faces in the crowd after the women's clinics.

"I have some little buddies from the camps," she said. "They come out and wave to me, and come up after the matches and say, 'Hey, you played great!'

"It's definitely exciting to hear them scream your name. It makes you want to play harder."

Their fellow students have been a tougher sell, however.

"We've tried everything," Stumpf said. "We've bribed them with pizza and T-shirts. The Gaucho Locos (student booster group) have gotten e-mails out about our matches.

"We got about six-to-eight Gaucho Locos out a half-hour before one of our matches, and they were really getting into it even during our stretches. I could tell our players really appreciated their efforts."

Their best student turnout came for a 3-0 win over Cal State Northridge.

"About five minutes before kickoff, about 115 members of the track-and-field team came walking in, in single file," Stumpf said. "They sat in a tight group, singing and chanting and supporting us the whole match.

"We came out just on fire because of it. There's just a different energy level."

It was the same feeling the Gauchos got at the end of last year's season opener.

It could happen again on Sept. 27, when UCSB faces UCLA's nationally-ranked women in a 4 p.m. preliminary. The Gaucho men will follow with a 6:30 p.m. showdown against defending Big West champion UC Irvine.

"We're hoping the people come out early," Stumpf said.

The best way to get a fire started, after all, is to come up with a good warmup act.

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

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