October 17, 2005

Men's Soccer Aims For Championship

Oct. 13, 2005

By Jason Cohn
The Santa Clara

It's 11:30 a.m. Tuesday morning and the (Santa Clara) men's soccer team is nearing the end of a grueling practice. Some players have already had more than they can take -- laying on the grass, fighting to catch their breath while others are getting cramps stretched out by their teammates.

Head coach Cameron Rast does not look sympathetic when yelling at his team, "Let's go! One more guys!" Slowly, the players who are left, stand, line up and prepare to sprint again. "Go!" Rast yells.

The sprinters begin running back and forth with agonizing looks on their faces. Some are being physically pushed or pulled by teammates just to make it up and down the field. When they finally cross the line, many collapse to the grass again.

This is Rast's remedy for a team that underachieves in conference play: get tougher.

Although the Broncos suffered a tough loss to the Lions of Loyola Marymount on Sunday, this year's men's squad has been enjoying quite a successful season thus far. Santa Clara is currently ranked No. 9 in the country with an 8-3 record.

Yet, this is not enough for Rast or his team.

"Anything less than a national championship will be disappointing to us," sophomore goalkeeper Chris Moreo said. "We as a team have to build mental toughness. Practices like that (Tuesday morning) build character."

With an exceptionally tough conference this season, the Broncos may need a few more character builders to make a run at the championship. Rast believes that mental toughness is going to be key in conference play this season.

"I don't think there's an easy game in the West Coast Conference on any given day as Loyola Marymount proved anybody can beat anybody, so it's going to be important for us to come ready to play every single game for the nine we have left."

Moreo understands just how critical that mental edge is on the road.

"Once we were down against LMU, it was more difficult to come to the realization that we're better than this team, that we can beat them."

Luckily for the Broncos, there is no shortage on talent to back up the mental side of the game with leaders like junior forward Keith DeVey and senior forward Kelechi Igwe.

DeVey leads the team and is second in the West Coast Conference in goals scored with six and has a team-high 14 points in 11 games played. With those numbers, DeVey earned WCC Player of the Month honors in September with a pair of clutch performances, including coming off the bench to score the game-winning goal against the No. 2 Bruins of UCLA with only three minutes remaining in the tight match-up.

Igwe has also been a huge contributor to the team's efforts this season, tallying two assists and netting three goals, including one this past weekend against the tough defense of San Diego.

One key factor in the success of the Broncos this season will be how quickly junior midfielder/forward Erik Ustruck recovers from a knee injury he suffered against Loyola Marymount this weekend. Ustruck, who will reportedly be playing again in about three to four weeks, was named National Player of the Week by Top Drawer Soccer on Oct. 3 after making a difference in a number of crucial games. This includes a 3-2 overtime victory over conference foe Saint Mary's in which Ustruck recorded a goal and an assist.

While his teammates are hoping that Ustruck will be back in enough time for the NCAA playoffs, they have confidence that they can continue to get the job done until he gets back.

"I'm hoping that we'll have a good weekend in Portland and Gonzaga. Both teams are typically very tough to play against and gritty -- it'll be a great battle," Rast said, in regards to their upcoming schedule.

Rast's players understand that every game for the rest of this season is going to be an intense battle.

"You have to bring your best every time to every single game this year, especially since a lot of WCC teams are gunning for us," Moreo said.

There is no doubt that Santa Clara is the team to beat in the WCC coming into conference play as they have the best national ranking and are currently leading the conference in critical statistics such as goals scored and points per game.

"We have the ability to score -- there's no question about it. Unfortunately right now, we're still sorting through our backs and not totally settled on who's going to be really solid for us," Rast said.

Sunday's loss put Santa Clara a half game behind Saint Mary's in the WCC conference standings, which means the Broncos are going to have to keep earning wins if they want to keep stride with a hot Gaels team that has won its last three in a row.

Yet Rast has full confidence that his squad's experience will help them prevail.

"Over the last couple of years, we've continually gotten stronger, increased depth, and we've got depth in a large group of seniors that provide good leadership for us."

Only time will tell if Rast has found his winning formula.