COLLEGE COURSE: Highlanders Men’s Soccer

When has a crowd of more than 1,000 people ever crammed into UC Riverside Soccer Stadium before Saturday? Only once, against UC Santa Barbara earlier this season.

That the two historical crowds (for the Highlanders) have both been this season is worth noting. Two huge crowds, perhaps the largest for soccer anywhere in the Inland Area, and both in support of a historically middle-of-the-road program.

Can it be that UC Riverside’s first true Division I breakthrough will come in men’s soccer?

It is true that both the women’s basketball program has enjoyed success (two NCAA tournament berths), and the men’s baseball program is one of the best in the Big West Conference, but it’s the men’s soccer program that is turning heads now.

The Highlanders (9-5-4 overall, 4-3-3 Big West) begin play tomorrow, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, in their first-ever postseason conference tournament. And with a current RPI of 34, UC Riverside looks primed for its first-ever NCAA tournament berth regardless of its results this week.

I covered UCR’s season finale against UC Davis for The Press-Enterprise on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2011, and watched as the Highlanders played to a 1-1 draw in front of more than 1,800 people.

Fans were loud and joyful, chanting for a goal until UCR’s Hayden Leslie finally put one home with in the 87th minute.

Groups sang songs and yelled “puto!” when the opposing goalkeeper kicked off. Heck, there was even a man in a green, full-body latex suit prancing around in support of the Highlanders.

It was like a real pro-style soccer experience, something that’s been sorely missing from the Inland Area, one of the nation’s soccer hotbeds.

“What a great atmosphere. Just another Big West game,” UC Davis coach Dwayne Shaffer said.

Added UC Davis sophomore Kevin Schulte, a Riverside King graduate: “The fact that it’s senior night also makes it special for them, so it’s also a big game for them. But yeah, it’s a pretty good atmosphere, better than most recent games we’ve had here.”

Now if only the university could do something about the east side of the stadium. It’s an eye sore upon what could be a brilliant and vibrant soccer cathedral. I suggest erecting a huge, length-of-the-touchline net behind the technical areas and benches. Get rid of the chain link and finally finish the landscaping. That building in the southeast corner is beautiful, so don’t hide it. But don’t make it unpretty with all the clunky chain link.

Ugh.

UC Davis coach Dwayne Shaffer:
“I thought it was a great game. Junior’s got a very good team. I felt like it was a pretty even game for the most part. We were getting in behind them in the second half a lot. We finally got one and it was extremely disappointing to give up a goal with three minutes to play on a set piece that could’ve been avoided so easily. So it was disappointing in that. You learn tough lessons in the this game of soccer, man, and it’s a cruel game sometimes. Three more minutes and we were Big West regular season champions, and it’s disappointing that it happened this way but I’m proud of my team. We’re extremely young. We had nine of our players on this road trip were freshmen. I’m happy with my team. I give credit to Junior. What he’s done at Riverside this year with this group… he’s got some outstanding players. It’s just one of the deal where tonight wasn’t mean to be our night. Unfortunate. We just keep getting better and better every game. Hopefully, we’ll be a little bit better on Wednesday, and I know we play at Santa Barbara. We got a tough game but we’ve played them twice. Both games have been extremely close games except for a great goal by one of their kids. Hopefully, we’ll bring our best game on Wednesday night and give ourselves a shot. I like our chances. We’re a good team.”

UC Riverside coach Junior Gonzalez:
“The second half, we made one error defensively. It was a quick combination that they did a good job of singling out two players and they finished their opportunity. But I thought our rhythm after that, and our ability to fight back was quality. And to get the late goal was great. We had some momentum, and we created an opportunity with seconds left to tie the game. This is a team that has never stopped fighting throughout the year. We’ve taken some tough results and we’ve also taken some good results against Top 15 programs. I think in this tie we’ll keep our RPI where it needs to be at 30, and hopefully, if things don’t work out in the next two matches, we’ll still make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in history. So we’ve done some good things. We’ve got a deep group that are working their tail off to do some special things this season. I think no matter what, the Top 4 in this conference is a toss-up. Every team is quality. It’s just a matter of who’s sharp on the day.”

UC Riverside sophomore Hayden Leslie:
“It was a hard game. Great work by the team, great team effort. The crowd was awesome. Huge crowd. It’s senior night. A lot of emotions but I thought we played well and took it to them. I just feel like mentally, we turned it on. Just put in the extra effort. Tried to put it away and come out on top. We’re a team that if we come out to play, we’ll beat any one. Our conference is a great conference, and if we come out strong… It was a rough match on the field. Calls were being let go so just get in hard. A lot of chippy fouls but you just gotta be tough, play through it.”

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