SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Having now qualified for 19 NCAA College Cup tournaments and winning 11 WCC Championships, Santa Clara University's men's soccer team has a storied tradition of playing postseason soccer in late November.
But two disappointing seasons had Santa Clara entering the 2010 campaign picked fifth in the seven-team WCC - and after a slow start, it looked as if the Broncos would have to wait another year to legitimately contend for a WCC title.
"For us to be a playoff team and to win a championship we had to do something different," said four-time WCC Coach of the Year Cameron Rast looking back at the team's 2-4 start. "We all had to come to terms with the fact that the way we were playing was not going to work for us."
The main adjustments came in the attack; transforming Santa Clara into one of the most productive offensive teams the conference (30 goals) – a marked improvement from scoring a league low 20 goals in 2009.
Santa Clara went unbeaten in 12 straight and closed out the year by losing just once in 14 outings.
The Broncos won the WCC Championship and are preparing for an NCAA tournament first round match at Sacramento State on Thursday, November 18 at 2 p.m.
"Going into this season, nobody expected us to win (the championship)," said Brandon Zimmerman on Sunday. "That's what feels the best. Going on the unbeaten streak we went on was outstanding. A lot of guys turned it on at the right time, found their spots – nobody tried to be the all-star for this team. You can see, if you look at our stats, all kinds of guys are scoring for us; it's not just one guy. It's a group effort and that's why we've been successful."
With a starting lineup dominated by young players, Rast notes that the contributions from Zimmerman, team captain Mykell Bates (pictured) and the core group of upperclassmen made it possible for the younger Bronco players to succeed, sacrificing the limelight for the team's best interest. Tough to do, especially at Santa Clara where most every recruit comes from Olympic development level club programs or has experience playing with the U.S. national team's youth system.
"It's tremendous what this young group has done," said Rast. "A lot of the credit has to go to the upperclassmen, using their maturity to help the group rather than focus on themselves individually. That's something that can sometimes cause strife in a team. If you look at key moments in our season, Cal (McKee) scoring at St. Mary's and playing terrific on Sunday, Eric Masch scoring off the bench, these are examples of our upperclassmen putting us in positions to win games."
And every game became crucial. Santa Clara's RPI dropped below 100 after early-season losses to Wisconsin and Valparaiso. The team realized back in September that it had to win the WCC title if it wanted to make it into postseason play.
"Our guys embraced that challenge," said Rast. "Each game became a potential stumble. When we talked to our group about winning the title, there was a lot of pressure there. They approached every game with a purpose and that will be our focus all the way through the playoffs. I know they will be very in tune to that."
Despite some pretty humble beginnings, in arguably the best coaching job to-date turned in by Rast, associate head coach Eric Yamamoto and goalkeepers coach Rusty Johnson, the 2010 season has turned into a memorable one on the Mission Campus – and it's not over yet.
If the team beats Sacramento State on Thursday, it moves on to play at UCLA – the nation's No. 8 seed – Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. in Los Angeles.
"It definitely wasn't predictable," said Rast. "But it's never a surprise that we have the ability and talent here at Santa Clara to win this league."