August 18, 2009

Men's Soccer Preview Day 1: Forward Thinking

Aug. 18, 2009

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - In the current era of UC Santa Barbara men's soccer it almost seems cliché to start a season preview saying that the expectations for the upcoming season are high, but when talking about a program that has become a perennial powerhouse in the last decade, expectations shouldn't be anything but high.

In 2008, UCSB soccer made its seventh consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Gauchos, however, had a fairly average season by recent standards. They compiled a 10-7-5 record - the fewest program wins since 2000 - and ended the season with a No. 22 final national ranking by the NSCAA.

This season, UCSB has been predicted to win the Big West Conference in a poll of the league's coaches and has received preseason rankings as high as No. 10 nationally by Top Drawer Soccer (the Gauchos are ranked No. 16 by the NSCAA and No. 19 by College Soccer News).

"We were very, very young last year and started six or seven freshman," head coach Tim Vom Steeg said. "We always go into the season saying we want to win the league championship and we want to get ourselves in the playoffs and see how far we can get in the playoffs.

"We certainly have high expectations that we will be much improved from last year, and with that, we can win a league championship and be in a better position once we get into the playoffs and go much deeper than we did last year. Realistically, last year, just making the playoffs is probably where we should have been."

This is the first of a multiple-part series previewing the men's soccer season which kicks-off on Aug. 22 when the Gauchos host an exhibition game against Westmont at 7 p.m. at Meredith Field at Harder Stadium. Today we will kick things off with a discussion of the 2009 forwards.

Last season, when discussing UCSB's forwards, the conversation began with Chris Pontius. In his senior season, Pontius scored 14 of the Gauchos' 41 goals, nearly twice as many as the second most prolific scorer on the team - Nick Perera, who put away eight shots during his senior season.

Despite graduating two players that scored over 50 percent of the team's goals in 2008, Vom Steeg is optimistic about his offense this season.

In 2009, when discussing UCSB's forwards, the conversation begins with David Walker, who is entering his senior season with the Gauchos. The coaching staff is expecting big things from the forward who started 20 games and scored three goals in 2008.

"We do think he is the fastest player in college soccer with the soccer ball and he shoots the ball very well with both feet," Vom Steeg said. "He needs to have a big season."

Walker won't be the only senior leading the Gaucho offense. Vom Steeg and his staff have decided to move Martin Hedevag up front as well, putting two of the most experienced players in the program on the front line. The senior was tied with Walker in 2008 with three goals and he also posted two assists on the year.

"Martin gives us a big, strong, physical presence up front and he gives us another component in that he is very good in the air," Vom Steeg said.

The Gauchos were hoping to also rely on Bongomin Otii - who is in his fourth year as a member of the program - up front. Otti has scored seven goals in his two years on the active roster, but is now expected to sit out the 2009 season due to knee injury.

Walker and Hedevag will not, however, be the only returnees playing up front. Sophomore David Ponce, who played in 12 games in a reserve roll in 2008, will be in the mix, as well as sophomore Joe Eubanks.

"Ponce had a great spring. He is one of the best finishers (on the team) in terms of scoring goals," Vom Steeg said. "And Eubanks is a lot like Martin and Bongomin in that he gives us a big, physical player up front."

Beyond the returning Gauchos, Vom Steeg and his staff have added a very talented group of newcomers that should create depth for the UCSB offense.

Freshman Michael Nonni hails from West Vancouver, British Columbia and has played for the Canadian National Team Training Centre.

"Nonni is probably the closest player in our program to Pontius," Vom Steeg said. "He is very, very athletic, can play with his back to the goal and is very good at the turn. He can run at people, he can run away from people and is very good in the air. He is someone we think could have a very good season."

Coming to UCSB via Santa Barbara City College is Waid Ibrahim, who originally hails from Jasikan, Ghana. While playing with the Vaqueros last season, Ibrahim earned First Team All-Western State Conference honors and scored 11 goals with seven assists.

"Waid is a great soccer player," Vom Steeg said. "He is great with both feet and great around the goal. He understands the game very, very well and knows where to run. He is another player who we will be hard-pressed not to have on the field for a lot of minutes."

With added depth that was lacking during the 2008 season, Vom Steeg is confident that despite the loss of a star such as Pontius, the Gauchos shouldn't just be able to fill the void left, they should be vastly improved.

"There is strength in numbers," Vom Steeg said. "With this group, we are hoping that we don't have to rely on a player like Pontius scoring every game, which is really what we came down to at the end of the year - we won if he scored, if he didn't score, we didn't win. For as good as he was, I am hoping we will get one or two of these players to give us the same production (as Pontius) at the same time so we don't get stuck on one player game-in and game-out having to score for us."

Season tickets for the 2009 men's soccer season are on sale for only five bucks a game. Fans who purchase 2009 season tickets will be guaranteed the opportunity to buy tickets for the 2010 Men's NCAA College Cup hosted by UCSB at Meredith Field at Harder Stadium Dec. 10-12, 2010. To accompany the successful "Soccer Town, USA" slogan as part of the College Cup bid, a discounted family valued offer is also available where a family of five can catch games for only $2.50 per game! Family Plan package also includes three free youth t-shirts and memberships to the new UCSB kids club: GKids. Fans can easily buy tickets online or by calling 805-893-UCSB. To purchase your tickets click here.

The Golden Scarf: A New Tradition

 To reward and recognize our loyal soccer supporters, we will present the "Golden Scarf" to fans who have donated and/or purchased season tickets for five consecutive seasons. The scarves will be presented during a special halftime ceremony during the October 2 game vs. Indiana.

- UCSBgauchos.com -

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