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Top-flight Soccer At SCU

Aug. 31, 2007

By Ann Killion
San Jose Mercury News

The interesting thing isn't that the Santa Clara men's soccer team is a national contender again. Of course it is.

"I believe we have enough talent to win a national championship," co-captain Peter Lowry said this week.

We've gotten kind of blase about the ability of the team from the small Jesuit school to consistently stay among the nation's elite.

The interesting thing is how Santa Clara continues to stay on top, despite the changing nature of men's soccer.

Of all the great Broncos teams, this one - picked to win the West Coast Conference and ranked fifth by College Soccer News to start the season - has the potential to be the very best.

"There are a lot of strengths," said Coach Cameron Rast, who has a good basis of comparison, having played on the 1989 co-national championship team and the 1991 runner-up. "It is very talented, very experienced."

The Broncos, who open their season tonight at home against Alabama A&M, are returning 19 players from the squad that made it to the NCAA quarterfinals last year, losing to Wake Forest. Two seniors graduated and one freshman, Amaechi Igwe, left early to enter the MLS draft - the latter development a clear sign of the new opportunities and challenges in men's collegiate soccer.

The Broncos' talent runs deep, from senior midfielder Lowry to highly touted freshman Jalil Anibaba, who has cracked the starting lineup. Anibaba, from Davis, was California's Gatorade Player of the Year, and has played for the U.S. under-20 team.

Talent and experience aren't enough to win a title. It also takes great chemistry - something helped by the Broncos' trip to Japan last spring. And, the team has to peak at the right time. Last season, UC-Santa Barbara was 7-6 midway but went 11-1-1 the rest of the way, beating Wake Forest in the semifinals and then toppling powerhouse UCLA to win the title.

"There's a lot more parity in the college game right now," Rast said.So, with all that parity and all those powerhouses, how exactly do the Broncos stay so competitive?

To hear Rast tell it, he has a lot to sell: a beautiful, small campus that nurtures the whole athlete, located in an exciting area with a perfect climate and enormous career opportunities.

But it's not like Rast can just toss a full ride at any athlete interested. By NCAA rules - in accordance to Title IX - Rast has only 9.9 scholarships to give, and he divides those among 28 players. Even though Santa Clara doesn't have a football team pushing up the number of men's scholarships on campus, Rast has no flexibility.

The lack of a football team might not benefit the soccer team in terms of scholarship numbers. But it does enhance the appeal of Santa Clara for many soccer players. They know that they - and their female counterparts on Jerry Smith's team - are the top dogs of autumn.

"That absolutely plays a big role," Lowry said. "At a school like UCLA, you're sixth or seventh down the totem pole. Here they highlight soccer. We get treated great. It's definitely a draw."

Rast, whose team won a title when the school competed in football, knows that the absence of football is still a sensitive subject around Santa Clara, 14 years after the sport was dropped. But he concedes it doesn't hurt his team.

"They feel like they're a priority," he said. "They get a lot of attention for what they do."

It was part of the attraction for Anibaba, who also wanted to stay close to home.

"Soccer is one of the primary sports, so it made me want to come here even more," he said.

The program's profile is also elevated by its recent ability to send players such as Igwe on to a professional career. However, the prospect of losing players early makes Rast's job more difficult.

"We try to create an environment where players can develop their potential," Rast said. "We encourage it. But we didn't anticipate losing a freshman."

How much interest Anibaba attracts remains to be seen. But Lowry is one of a handful of Broncos considered likely candidates for the January MLS draft - which will include the reincarnation of the Earthquakes.

"My goal is to play professional soccer," said Lowry, who has had a chance to train during the summer with a few MLS teams. He also is interested in any overseas opportunity.

"It's a pretty small world as far as elite soccer," he said. "You start hearing about things. As more players play abroad, more and more doors are opening for the rest of us. There's so much more potential than there was five years ago."

Things are changing fast in men's collegiate soccer. But one thing is consistent: Santa Clara is still among the elite.