By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press
Sam Garza can take the heat. He grew up in Texas, after all.
He had the pressure cooker of UCSB's Harder Stadium on his mind last summer as he trained back home for his junior season as a forward on the Gauchos' nationally ranked soccer team.
"It was ridiculously hot," Garza said. "It was actually a benefit for me to go home to Texas because it was so hot there.
"If you can get fit in that, in that kind of weather, then coming to Santa Barbara should be a breeze."
But Harder Stadium, the nation's most populated college soccer arena for five consecutive years, puts Garza in a different kind of hot seat. He's one of the hottest players on a team that's asking even more from him now as it begins its 10th consecutive NCAA Tournament journey.
The Gauchos were given a bye in Thursday's first round and will face the winner of the Dartmouth-Providence match at home on Sunday at 5 p.m.
"It's why I came to Santa Barbara, to be part of a championship-caliber program," he said. "We can go to the Final Four. There's no doubt about it. We have the players. I've seen it on a daily basis in training. We do unbelievable things.
"But it's just up to us. We've got to grow up a little bit in the tournament. It's do-or-die time now."
Garza, who transferred to UCSB after playing his freshman season at the University of Denver, did some growing up after scoring a team-high nine goals for the Gauchos last year. He worked on his endurance, which had become an issue after his comeback from a major knee injury he suffered at Denver two years ago.
"I was out for eight, nine, 10 months, not doing much, just rehabbing," he said. "Obviously, we had this past offseason to get some fitness.
"I got to train with FC Dallas over the summer break, almost every day, for about a month, and I got the chance to get into a lot better shape than I was last summer."
Gauchos coach Tim Vom Steeg is asking him to do a lot more running lately, starting him farther back in the midfield after he spent the previous season as mostly a poaching forward.
"I feel that after basically two full seasons with us, he's now become much more of a soccer player rather than just a guy who runs-and-guns, picks up balls and does his own thing," he said
The coach moved Garza after he underwent a scoring slump late last season which carried through the first part of this year.
"We counted up to 16, 17 games with only one goal, dating back to last year," Vom Steeg said. "We called him into the office and said, ?Listen, Sam, let's deemphasize the scoring part and let's talk about the other parts of your game, passing the ball and working on defense ? And when the goal-scoring comes, it'll come.'
"I thought he took that to heart and has accepted more of a workmanlike role."
And that's when his shots started finding the net. Six of his eight goals have come in the last 10 games, and he's also either recorded a goal or an assist in eight of the last 10.
"He can flat-out pick up a ball and run away from anybody," Vom Steeg said. "It's his turn, and the way he chews up the ground to beat you inside or outside. He does that really well, and nobody does it as well as he does.
"But that's now just one part of being a soccer player. Now you have to be able to trap and pass and connect, and you have to be able to put balls on frame and shoot with both feet. That's a pro player."
Garza has aspirations of receiving a Generation Adidas contract, which goes to the top underclassmen in collegiate soccer. It's one of the reasons he transferred to UCSB. But he knows his pro future is also tied into the Gauchos' NCAA future.
"I think we need to make it pretty far in the tournament to be able to make that happen," he said. "But I'm not really focused on that right now. We're just focused on the next game coming up. We just have to fix the little things.
"We have the players. Every player on our field has the potential to go pro. We are a professional team. We have that caliber of players. I think it's just one of those things where you have to, on a daily basis, just put those things together that work for you."
The Gauchos have had no problem scoring goals with the forward combination of Garza (four assists to go with his eight goals), Luis Silva (16 goals, nine assists), David Opoku (eight goals, two assists) and Dom Sarle (three goals, eight assists). UCSB ranks fifth nationally with a team goals average of 2.24 per game.
"That speaks for itself," Garza said. "Dom is a great player. He has great vision. He has a lot of assists. Silva's a tremendous player, probably the best in the nation.
"To have those caliber of players around you, it just makes you an even better player. Every day, going out in training, they make you a better player."
Vom Steeg likes the way his star-studded forward line has finally meshed, and Garza is a big reason for making that happen.
"I think he's become more a student of the game," he said. "I think he understands his roles. He's asking better questions about where to get the ball on the field.
"That's been part of this whole group, and it's why we're really starting to gel offensively. Each one of them has started to give up a little something, started playing for each other, started to look for each other. As a result, it's a very good group going forward."
Its next step will come at Harder Stadium on Sunday night.
"I love this place, and the beautiful weather," Garza said. "You can't get any better than the beach and the mountains.
"And when you get 5,000-6,000 or 13,000 to a game, people would die to have that kind of atmosphere."
He's done enough dying in the atmosphere back home.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org