SANTA CLARA, Calif. - When entering a new season, teams must organize and focus on goals that they would like to attain for the year. At a school like Santa Clara where the soccer program is considered to be among the nation's elite, the motivation is always a national championship. As the 2003 season rolls around for second year head coach Cameron Rast, he knows that in order to attain the ultimate goal, the team must first make it into the NCAA Tournament, something the 2002 Broncos fell just short of accomplishing.
"Last year in missing the playoffs, we learned a tough lesson, " said Rast. "A year later I think the players know more about the focus and consistency it takes to be one of the 48 teams in the tournament. The goal of the program is to be in the playoffs every year and while we were close to making the tournament, the motivation for this season is to prove to the ourselves, the committee and other programs across the country that we should be in the playoffs each and every year."
Santa Clara started and ended last season playing very well. It was the middle of their season that cost them a berth in the postseason. After posting a 4-1-0 record to begin the year, the Broncos dropped five of their next eight games, including the first three against West Coast Conference foes. Rast rallied his troops for a four-match win streak to end the season that included a 3-0 blanking of then No. 10 Loyola Marymount. Their 10-6-1 overall record in 2002 placed them just on the outside of the postseason, looking in.
Now, with 19 letterwinners returning from last year's squad and motivation from a year away from the playoffs, the Broncos appear poised to make runs at the WCC title and deep into the NCAA Tournament.
In order to make that deep run into the playoffs, Rast will count on his veteran leaders that consist of nine returning starters, four of which are seniors.
"The strength of the 2003 team will be the fact that we return nine starters and have added some depth to the squad. Gone are three seniors who had great impacts for our team, but we have four seniors and a large junior class who have some great experience and should be ready to take on the tough schedule we have put together."
Seniors Audren Cashman and Matt Upton both return for their fourth years, but have a different title as both were named captains of the 2003 squad. Cashman was a 2002 Second Team All-WCC selection that anchored the team from the center midfield position. His veteran leadership and strength on the ball will be big factors in the team's success.
Upton, who spent a majority of his junior season sidelined with injuries, returns ready and focused for his fourth year in a Bronco uniform. His career two goals and two assists are a bonus for the defender who helps contain the opponents on the outside. His height and ability in the air will be key factors for the team in 2003.
"Both Audren and Matt will provide a great deal of experience and leadership," said Rast. "In tough games they will provide they glue to hold the team together when the pressure is on us and at the same time both have the ability to put our opponents under pressure. They both have great character, are tremendous athletes and do a great job."
Joining the two captains are fellow seniors Kellen Gilmore and Kirk Fonseca. Gilmore enters his senior season as one of the more deft passers on the team. In his first three years he has accumulated nine assists, including three last year. Fonseca is playing in only his third year on the Mission Campus after transferring in before the 2000 season from San Diego State. His three goals and three assists in 2002 placed him fifth on the team in scoring.
The juniors are led by two world class players in Ryan Cochrane and Steve Cronin, both of whom are players on the U.S. U-20 National Team. Cochrane is a two-time All-American who is gaining attention from publications such as Soccer America as one of the best defenders in the country. In addition to his defensive prowess, Cochrane also has a sneaky ability to get into scoring position during set pieces. Cronin is a very tall and athletic goalkeeper who poses a threat on offense with his long and accurate punts from the box. He assisted on a game-winner from the box during his freshman year, but also has the ability to play in the field as evidenced by his game-winning goal in 2001.
Alongside Cochrane and Cronin are fellow two-year letterwinners Zach Knight, Jason Pan and Will Weatherly. Knight has started 11 of the 20 matches he has appeared in thus far in his career and has scored one goal and assisted on three others from the defensive side of the ball. Pan has played both center mid and central defense during the last two years for the Broncos. An imposing player, Pan's strength on the ball will make life easier for Cronin between the pipes.
Weatherly had a breakout year as a sophomore, scoring five goals and assisting on one other. His 11 points were the second highest total on the team in 2002 as were his five goals scored. Rast said that Weatherly had a great spring season and will help the team both in the attacking midfield positions and in the front line.
The other figures that should help the Broncos in 2003 are sophomores Jason Cunliffe, Kelechi Igwe and Jeff Scott.
Cunliffe played 2002 as a redshirt freshman and garnered honorable mention All-WCC honors after scoring four goals and assisting on two others. His quickness and precision shots make him a threat to score at any time on the field.
Igwe had a stellar rookie campaign as he posted four goals and two assists in his 15 starts. Three of his goals in 2002 were the game-winners, including the first two goals of his collegiate career. His size and strength make him hard to throw off the ball, while his quickness and agility make him a threat on breakaways.
Scott, like Cunliffe, also garnered honorable mention All-WCC in his first year in a Bronco uniform. The defender from Granite Bay, Calif., will use his size and strength to deter opponents. He scored two goals and assisted on two others in the 13 games in which he appeared.
Despite the unusually high number of veterans on the 2003 club, Rast knows there are still some areas that the Broncos need to make adjustments in if they are going to reach their goals this season.
In 2002 the Broncos posted a 10-6-1 overall record and a 3-3-0 record in league play. On the surface that seems like a relatively positive year, but after closer analysis, Coach Rast sees plenty of room for improvement.
"An area that will be important for us to improve will be our confidence in playing on the road," said Rast. "While we were 8-1 at home last year our road record was not nearly as favorable. With the first three weeks on the road this year, we will have to mature in this area if we are going to have any early season success."
The 2003 schedule has 19 games on it, of which only seven are played in the friendly confines of Buck Shaw Stadium. SCU will play six matches on the road before returning for the 2003 home opener on September 18 when they take on Cal State Monterey Bay as part of the SCU/adidas Classic. Three of their first six games are against 2002 tournament teams, including perennial powerhouses Creighton and SMU, who the Broncos will both play in the LMU Tournament on September 5 and 7.
Aside from playing better on the road, Rast also had some other areas he wanted to see improvement on.
"In terms of our play, I think the one area we need to focus on the most will be the attack," said the former U.S. Olympic Team captain. "In our late season run to make the playoffs we relied largely on Jamil Walker to score goals and create problems for our opponents. With Jamil graduating and moving onto the MLS (4th round selection of the San Jose Earthquakes), we will be working with the new players to see who emerges as the player who will score goals for us."
Who emerges as that go to player is still to be determined, but luckily for Rast and his staff, the Broncos will have a good chance to find out before the season starts with the team making a 12-day trip to Europe for their preseason.
The Europe Trip
As per NCAA rules, a team may fundraise for an overseas trip once every four years. The 2003 season for the Broncos will begin on August 13 when the team travels to Europe for a 12-day trip that will include four games against European squads. With 33 players on the Europe travel roster, the coaching staff will take that time to evaluate how the current players play with the newcomers. Once the evaluation is done, the roster size will be trimmed by six players for the impending season.
"We are taking the team to England on a twelve day tour for this year's preseason," said Rast. "We will have the opportunity to play four games during the try-out period to select our team and prepare for the start to our season. The first three weeks of the season we are away from Buck Shaw Stadium and play some outstanding teams. It will be important for us, not only to select our final squad in Europe, but also to begin to build the understanding within our team so our performance at the beginning of the season will be at a high level."
Once they return from their trip, the Broncos will have just over a week to acclimate themselves back to life in the States before their regular season begins. The season will start on August 30 when the Broncos take on Alabama A&M in game one of the UC Irvine Tournament. With classes not starting until the fourth week of September, the newcomers will have eight games under their belt before ever setting foot into a SCU classroom, giving them a little time to adjust to college life before classes start.
Although the roster will not be set until the team comes back from England, Coach Rast has compiled a talented batch of newcomers that should fight for spots on the team. Of these players a few stuck out in the coaches' mind, predominantly because of their club experience.
"We have brought in some very talented players from some of the best clubs in the country," said Rast. "Tannen Wels (Irvine Strikers) and Erik Ustruck (Scott Gallagher) both are talented players who will expect to see time for us this fall. Kris Clark (San Diego Surf) is a transfer we think will have a big impact. Dominic Doty (Westside Metros) is another one we think will be someone who can come in compete for time. It will be interesting to see how they adjust and integrate themselves into the team."
Their adjustment and integration to the team may in fact be the key to the success of the Bronco program. With may talented returnees, the new additions just might be the secret weapons needed to get Santa Clara back into the tournament where it knows it belongs.