Editor’s note: This is the second in a series previewing the UC Davis fall sports.
Chockablock with experience — the Aggies return nine starters — and re-energized by some talented young blood, the UC Davis men’s soccer team could be a West Coast surprise package in 2013.
“Absolutely, we’re a contender,” longtime Aggie head coach Dwayne Shaffer says, assessing his club’s chances of winning the Big West Conference title.
The key? An improved offense.
Registering more than the 23 goals of a year ago is imperative and Shaffer thinks 30 scores — given UCD’s air-tight defense — will be more than enough firepower to help carve out a memorable Aggie season.
“Every top team in the country has what I call a lethal striker (10 to 15 goals),” says the 17th-year Aggie mentor. “I think we have some talent on our team that can do that.”
Three players — Alex Aguiar, Alex Henry (third team All-Big West) and Matt Sheldon — had eight points each in 2012. None had more than three goals. Considering UCD allowed only 20 goals, the so-so attack was enough to fashion a 10-7-4 overall mark (7-3 in Big West).
Close, but in the end, the Aggies missed the postseason by this much.
An early-season streak that found the locals tying Air Force, Denver, USF and Cal State Bakersfield dearly cost the Aggies.
“If one of those games had been a win instead of a tie, we would have been in the NCAA tournament,” Shaffer told The Enterprise. UCD has twice (2007 and 2008) gone to the Big Dance.
It would have been three times, but for lack of one goal.
After the first week of practice, Shaffer thinks there’s more than that extra goal coming this fall …
“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on our attack; small-group training with just the attacking players,” Shaffer explains. “We’re teaching them tricks on how to get themselves free to score goals.”
UCD also has been moving key players around.
Aguiar, who saw a bulk of his time at midfield last season, moves forward to join Sheldon. Dashiell McNamara, a cat-quick redshirt freshman from Sacred Heart Cathedral (San Francisco) has caught Shaffer’s eye, and former Davis High CIF Player of the Year Ryan Gross will move from fullback to center mid.
Senior Henry stays put at midfield, as will Kevin Schulte, a second-team All-Big West performer in 2012.
Shaffer thinks he’s got a good number of guys who can find the back of the net, but does he have that “lethal striker” he says elite teams possess?
“I think we have some talent on our team that can do that. If we could get one player to get 15 goals, that would be fantastic,” a smiling Shaffer continues. “Realistically? If we could get a couple of guys to score seven to 10 goals … that would win a lot of games.”
Defensively, expect UCD’s tenacity to be no less than a year ago.
Elliott Hord, another tough senior, switches positions with Gross, joining Ramon Martin Del Campo and Brian Ford as backline members.
Should anything get through, a Spiderman of sorts in the form of veteran goalie Omar Zeenni awaits. Zeenni’s goals-against average (0.91) was tops among Big West net-minders last year, and for his efforts, he was accorded All-Big West second-team honors.
Failing a league crown, Shaffer believes his Aggies have a formidable enough non-Big West slate that the school’s strength of schedule (RPI) will come into play should the locals be looking for an at-large bid come November.
“I’ve always had the philosophy we’ll play anybody, any where, any day,” Shaffer continues. “In the Big West, we already play quite a few quality teams.”
Mixing in nationally ranked New Mexico (No. 11) and San Diego (No. 16) certainly helps the RPI and, with regular-season play opening on the road at Portland (Aug. 30) and Oregon State (Sept. 1), the coach believes a strong start is not only good for team confidence, but helps in bringing national attention.
Seattle opens UCD’s home schedule with a Sept. 6 visit. NCAA 2012 postseason participant Cal State Bakersfield is here Sept. 8. Both games have 5 p.m. start times.
“It’s going to be tough,” Shaffer says. “Nonconference is where we really need to improve. We need that fast start.”
Notes: The Aggies host Shaffer’s alma mater, Chico State, on Sunday (5 p.m.) in an exhibition match. Wildcat coach Felipe Restrepo is a 1998 UCD grad who played and coached under Shaffer. Division II Chico is coming off of a 9-3-6 season in which it made a postseason appearance. “It’s always nice,” Shaffer says of meeting his protégé. “It does have a special feel … and Felipe (entering his fifth year at the helm) has done a wonderful job.” … BennettRank College Soccer has the Aggies ranked 34th nationally — one of four Big West teams in the Top 40. Cal State Northridge (16), UC Santa Barbara (25) and UC Riverside (40) are the others. “It’s great to see UCD up there with Michigan, Wisconsin, Louisville, UCLA — the Big West right in there with members of the big-five conferences,” Shaffer notes.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at email@example.com or 530-747-8047.