By MARK PATTON NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
Coach Tim Vom Steeg felt like he'd entered a time warp.
He drove up to the Cate School campus for the opening day of UCSB soccer practice and found himself back in 2004.
That was the year that the Gauchos got a school-record 21 wins and an NCAA runnerup trophy, so you can imagine the great déja vu Vom Steeg got from the hills of Carpinteria on Wednesday.
"Our group is a very hungry group," he said after UCSB's morning workout. "To me, it's reminiscent of the '04 team, and I say that because we have six seniors who are 22, 23 years old.
"But the biggest thing that jumps out at me is the fact that we were a big team in '04. We were a physical team in '04."
When the Gaucho blue went on the offensive at the end of last year, it looked more like The Attack of the Smurfs.
"We were literally 5-foot-3 across the field," Vom Steeg conceded.
Injuries had cut UCSB down to size. The Gauchos lost the likes of 6-foot-6 defender Peter Schmetz and 6-2 forward Achille Campion, and then lost four of their last five matches. It was capped by a 1-0 heartbreak before 11,075 at Cal Poly, leaving them at 10-6-3 and out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since that Class of 2004 was in its freshman season.
"I probably had eight scholarships sitting next to me and 1.9 on that field at Cal Poly, in a game that you need all 9.9 to win," Vom Steeg said.
But senior midfielder Fifi Baiden, ranked No. 38 in Top Drawer Soccer's list of the nation's top 100 collegiate soccer players, didn't take it sitting down. Last season's disappointment prodded him throughout the entire offseason, and prompted him to address the team midway through Wednesday's workout.
"I was pretty much saying that it's the first practice, this is the preseason, so everyone should bring their best," he said. "Everyone is fighting for a spot. We want the energy, we want the commitment, and everyone to be willing to work as a team.
"Coming out today, everybody was anxious and ready to go, and wanting to make up for last season."
It reminded Vom Steeg of how the snub from the 2001 NCAA Selection Committee affected that year's freshmen, 10 of whom would stick together all the way to the penalty kick shootout against Indiana in the 2004 NCAA final.
"I like the fact that there's a little bit of a chip on their shoulders from not having made the playoffs last year," he said of this year's group.
Wednesday felt a bit like 2004 to Schmetz and Campion, too: They were both feeling like kids again.
"You're always ticked off when you're sitting on the side and you can't really help the team," said Schmetz, who was limited to just eight matches in 2012. "You get really excited when you're finally ready to play in a real competition.
"I'm totally fine. I'm fit and ready to go."
Campion is, too, after missing all but seven matches. But he said the Gauchos are fitter in mind as well as body.
"We're all on the same page," he said. "Everybody's happier this year. There's a real positive energy.
"Going through the team's workouts, during captain's practice, during the spring, everybody was here to work. We're all friends. It's all good. We're ready to kick it up at Harder."
Campion scored six goals in his seven games. Vom Steeg can only imagine the difference the French native would've made in UCSB's other 12 matches, or if fellow senior and countryman Goffin Boyoko hadn't played hurt all year.
"We can't lose Schmetz - nobody has as much skill, and he's at 6-foot-6 - and we can't lose Campion," he said. "Those are the two key players for us, in the back and up front. You can build around that, and last year, we lost them both.
"We want to build off Campion. You're talking about a kid that could challenge Rob Friend's record (20 goals in a season) if he stays on the field."
Campion, who was ranked at No. 100 in Top Drawer Soccer's top 100, said he'd love to break that record.
"I train really hard every day - I'll do my best and see what happens," he said. "But if I don't score and all my teammates do, and we win the national trophy, I'll take that any day."
And that may be the best way the 2013 Gauchos could compare to 2004, an unselfish and gritty group that brawled like brothers during practice, and stood up for each other the same way during matches.
"In '04, anyone who walked onto the field who didn't give those seniors what they needed from him got yelled at," Vom Steeg recalled. "I kind of feel it's the same way with this group."
It will take more than six seniors to play for a national championship this season, especially since Ema Boateng's ship has sailed. Last year's Big West Conference Freshman of the Year is now playing in Sweden.
But UCSB has added plenty of offensive firepower, Vom Steeg said. It includes UCLA transfer Reed McKenna ("Get him inside a box, and it's one-out-of-two shots for a goal"), Southern Poly State transfer Adis Islamovic ("He's the closest player we've had since Luis Silva in terms of skill set"), and such freshmen as Minnesota Player of the Year Ismaila Jome of Gambia ("He can run by anybody, and he has a ridiculous left foot") and La Canada's Armand Bagramyan ("He tested out as our fastest kid, completely unexpected, so now we know why he picked up 150 goals in high school").
But Campion knows that it takes more to be a champion.
"This whole camp is going to be about building chemistry," he said. "We've got the goods, we've just got to deliver. There's no excuse."
You could almost hear the echo from 2004.