Before Aggie Nation goes crazy celebrating that the UC Davis men’s soccer team returns its top five point-makers from a year ago, note that those able young men accounted for only 17 goals on a squad that had just 20 net-benders during a 9-9-3 campaign.
Veteran UCD coach Dwayne Shaffer’s squad was one goal here, one goal there away from an NCAA postseason berth a year ago.
For example, against then-top 5-ranked UC Santa Barbara on Oct. 19, 2013, Gaucho goals in the last 30 seconds of regulation and overtime sent the Aggies packing, 3-2.
“We win or tie that game, we’re in the NCAA postseason. Just one win,” Shaffer said. “It’s been exciting, but also it’s been — for lack of a better term — frustrating that my team … (has) been so close. We’ve been one win away from making the NCAA tournament three years in a row.”
Now, the Aggies — who had the third-ranked Big West Conference defense with only 21 goals allowed — are working this first week of practice on doing a better job of putting the ball away.
“We have some great players in the program,” Shaffer told The Enterprise. “Our two leading scorers from last year (Matt Sheldon and Matt Wiesenfarth, six goals, 13 points each) are both going to be seniors. They’ve pretty much been starters throughout careers. We also have a couple of recruits to help with the offense.”
Shaffer added that his guys are “back to the level of speed and quickness that we’ve had in the past. Adjustments will have to be more on the part of our opponents.”
UCD fans will learn a little more about just where that offense stands when Chico State comes to town for a noon scrimmage Sunday at Aggie Soccer Field.
As Shaffer talks about how a starting lineup might look, he dwells a minute on the team’s big loss: Big West Goalkeeper of the Year Omar Zeeni. Trying to make up for the graduation of this brilliant three-year starter will be junior John Piasta, redshirt sophomore Armando Quezada and junior Kris Schultz.
“We lost a great one,” Shaffer acknowledged. “But Piasta, Schultz and Quezada are showing great qualities to be the starter. It’s just a matter of who is the most prepared and gives us the best chance to win.”
On the back line, a couple of preseason all-league first-team picks — seniors Brian Ford and Ramon Martin Del Campo — will join senior Andre Brown and Sam Hoeck (a 6-foot-3 junior).
Martin Del Campo just spent a week in the U.S. U23 National Team camp.
Up front will be, Shaffer hopes, a relentless duo in Sheldon and Wiesenfarth. Sheldon is another BWC preseason first-teamer with former Jesuit High star Wiesenfarth a second-team choice.
In the midfield, Davis High graduate Ryan Gross, still only a junior, returns with senior Ian Palmer. This was an area hit hard by graduation and Shaffer said after three days of practice, it’s too early to tell how the middle of the pitch will play out.
“Gross is a great leader and should be holding down the center-middle position,” the coach explained.
But what about the offense? Shaffer delved deeper …
“There are no secrets in soccer. The maturity of some of our players and the positive attitude of the team … and we’ve added some quality in some of the players coming in.
“Also, we need to get better on our set pieces.”
For a time last year, UCD led the Big West in shots on goals and corner kicks. But their conversion rate — 20-of-286 (.070 percent) — was not good. On 121 corners, the Aggies scored not one goal.
“We’re taking the shots. Our players are being put in positions to be successful. But we need to capitalize on our chances created,” Shaffer concluded.
UCD kicks off the regular season in the Wolstein Classic at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the challenge come Aug. 29, followed by a Aug. 31 date with Canisius.
Then, West Coast Conference foes Loyola Marymount (Sept. 5) and San Diego (Sept. 7) come to town. Nonleague home dates also include Air Force, Grand Canyon and St. Mary’s.
Big West play starts Oct. 2 with Cal State Fullerton in a rare night game (7 p.m.) at Aggie Stadium under the lights. Cal Poly (6 p.m. on Oct. 22) also is at Aggie Stadium.
Notes: UCD plays three schools in the first National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll — No. 16 UC Irvine, No.18 UC Santa Barbara and No. 24 Cal State Northridge. “Unfortunately, they’re all in our conference,” Shaffer points out. … Shaffer said soccer has never been bigger in the U.S. and believes his Aggies will be entertaining. However, he remembers 20 years ago when he was an assistant at Clemson: “We were the No. 1 team in the country … for the three years I was there, the top-scoring team. We scored 98 goals in 1993, then in 1994 we scored 95. We had one guy score 32, another 29.” Shaffer knows the game has changed: “If you have a player that can score eight to 10 goals during the season, that’s a great strike rate.” Aggie fans might have two guys in Wiesenfarth and Sheldon who could do just that.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.