September 1, 2009

Gauchos Seek Another Title Run with Walker

SANTA BARBARA- Calif. -

Sept. 1, 2009

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By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press

No feet are faster at carrying a ball in college soccer than those of UCSB's David Walker.

At least that's what his coach says, and he'd get little argument from the 11,075 Cal Poly fans who watched Walker run past their Mustangs to set up Chris Pontius' goal to start the second overtime of last year's epic match.

"He's lightning in a bottle," coach Tim Vom Steeg said.

But in the Year 1 A.P. (After Pontius), can Walker now carry the Gauchos?

They'll begin to find out tonight at Harder Stadium when they open the season with a 7 o'clock match against Cal State Bakersfield.

Walker, a 6-foot forward from Orange, is looking to strike for his second NCAA championship run. But with fellow forward Bongomin Otii out for the season with a knee injury, he is the only Gaucho left who played in the 2006 College Cup.

"Standing on the podium, holding that trophy, I didn't expect it to happen that fast," said Walker, who started 18 of UCSB's 24 matches during that freshman year.

But as the last champion standing, he does know that the Gauchos never would've made it to St. Louis without first sitting down to discuss their six defeats after just 13 matches.

"We sat in a room and pretty much decided that we needed to start being unselfish and put all our egos and pride away, " Walker recalled.

UCSB wound up losing only once in its final 12 matches.

It's a transformation that Walker said must also happen with this year's team before anyone can start talking about another national title.

"What's happened since 2006 is that we've been able to recruit a lot better players - more technically proficient players," Walker said. "Sometimes, a lot of pride goes along with that. What needs to also go along with that is the discipline to be unselfish.

"It's definitely something this team still needs to do, but it's also definitely happening. The players on the team are great. Everybody has that same goal, it's just a matter of it all coming together."

And this is how Walker - one of only three seniors on the roster - may need to carry the Gauchos. He considers it to be more important than picking up the 14-goal load that Pontius shouldered last year.

"Waid Ibrahim and Michael Nonni are both great strikers," he said of the two newcomers on UCSB's starting front line. "I know my role is different than last year, when it was to help Pontius get goals.

"This year, I'll be helping the entire front line get goals. That's the load on my shoulders now."

Vom Steeg has noticed Walker ascending into a leadership role on a team in which 23 of the 33 players are either freshmen or sophomores.

"The way he relates to the other guys shows how his maturity level has risen," he said. "He's really grown since his freshman year. The other guys do look up to him."

Vom Steeg nearly overlooked Walker during the recruiting process. He didn't notice him until after checking out Pontius' old club team, the Irvine Strikers, during a San Diego tournament in March of 2006.

"He absolutely blew past the entire other team," Vom Steeg said, "and so I asked, 'Who is that kid?' "

He was, as it would turn out, a starter for the team that would win an NCAA championship just nine months later.

Walker's big moment that fall came when he scored the go-ahead goal during a 3-1 upset at top-ranked SMU in the second round of the playoffs.

"The ball was bouncing around, and he showed his athletic ability by getting to it first and ripping it," Vom Steeg said.

But the rip on the young Walker was that he'd disappear as quickly as he'd strike.

"He played a great game at SMU, got a great goal, and then we hopped onto a plane and went to Old Dominion - and I had to pull him off the field after just 15 minutes or so," Vom Steeg said. "Somebody ran past him three times, he lost a ball out of bounds, and I couldn't get him off the field fast enough.

"I'm not quite sure we ever figured out why he was so inconsistent, and I'm not sure he could've said why, either."

Walker does see it all more clearly now.

"It's always really hard for a freshman to come in there and match the intensity and fitness level of the guys who are already here," he said.

The toughest part for Walker is that his runs are usually much longer than the normal striker.

"He's certainly one of the most purely talented soccer players we've ever had here," Vom Steeg said. "I don't know if anyone in college soccer can run with a ball at the same pace that he does.

"And while most players might sprint for only about 10 yards, he often picks up the ball and takes off running 40-to-50 yards on a sprint for the back post. It might take him five minutes to recover from that."

Walker admits that he needs to "be smart" about pacing himself and picking his spots - which is just what Vom Steeg did last October at Cal Poly.

"That was all him, playing to our strengths," Walker said. "It was about getting Pontius in front of the net, which is where he's especially good, and getting me down the line with the ball.

"It was a great coaching move by Tim."

The plan was to play the ball into the corner for Walker.

"Their fullback took a touch when he got to the ball first, but he tried to control it instead of clearing it, and Walker's closing speed is unbelievable," Vom Steeg said. "He took it right off the guy's foot and kept running.

"Then he picked out Pontius among their center backs who had dropped off on him, and Pontius hit it one time and won the game."

Those upfield plays often get the Gaucho coach wondering how high Walker's upside really goes.

"Whenever we see him when he's really, really good like that, we end up holding him to that standard a lot," Vom Steeg said. "Maybe our patience has been a little less with him.

"But after three years, he really knows what our expectations are now, and he's mature enough now to approach the game differently. He's come to a real good place."

And just maybe, it's the crossroad to another College Cup.

UCSB Athletics is proud to introduce G Kids - its new official kids club! G Kids members will receive a free G Kids t-shirt, free admittance to tons of Gaucho games, opportunities to be ball boys and girls at games, a special birthday greeting from Olie (the new G Kids mascot) and much, much more! For more information on G Kids, or to become a member, please click here.