Oct. 12, 2009

NCAA.com Men's Soccer Blog

By Kevin Scheitrum

Washington men’s soccer coach Dean Wurzberger likes to jokingly call himself “the dean of the dean of coaches in the Pac-10.” Now in his 18th year, Wurzberger’s by far the longest-tenured coach in the league, beating out his closest competition – San Diego State’s Lev Kirshner and Cal’s Kevin Grimes – by eight years. Or, just about double anyone else’s time on the bench.

So, Wurzberger said, he’s seen a lot.

But rarely has he ever seen this: A Washington team that’s begun to use Pac-10 play as a kind of defibrillator, a way of resuscitating a season that crawled into its conference schedule after barely surviving non-conference play.

It’s not that Washington was terribly bad in September – the Huskies went .500, with their only losses coming to teams that were ranked at the time (or still are). It’s just that, after a weekend that saw Washington first trample on No. 5 Cal with a 2-0 upset win in Berkeley and then work a tie at No. 22 Stanford on Sunday, they certainly weren’t this good.

“We normally roar out of the gate,” Wurzberger said. “[This year] I’m seeing a different type of team that’s finding itself in September, and then gaining ground and continuing to improve during Pac-10 play.”

“There has to be a belief, an attitude amongst the guys that we can come strong,” he continued. “But when you’re only .500 non-conference you put all your eggs in one basket.”

Whether it’s because of the extra travel – Seattle sits 800 miles north of the conference’s midsection in the Bay Area – or just the simple rigors of two or three games a week against some of the nation’s perennial powers, the yearly fade had become inevitable. But this year, now at 1-0-3 in the conference, Washington’s run shows just how conference play can revive – and this year, has revived – teams’ chances at the NCAA Tournament.

“We put ourselves in a .500 position,” Wurzberger said. “You’re not gonna get in there at-large unless you can go in through the Pac-10.”

The past three weeks have seen conference play cut down teams that soared through the early part of their schedules and lift up teams that hobbled into the real regular season.

Arguably the nation’s premier conference, ACC play has been brutal on some of the clubs that began the season with the highest hopes, while also tremendously helpful for others. Virginia hasn’t lost this year outside of the ACC. It hasn’t even tied. But in league play, it’s only 1-3. The Cavs’ league-opening loss to Duke catapulted the Blue Devils into the rankings, and its loss to Clemson gave the Tigers their first win of 2009. Fortunately for Virginia, the Cavaliers’ lone league win came over Wake Forest, then No. 2 in the country. The Cavs finish regular season play with N.C. State, a team that’s benefitted from some big conference wins. Going 2-2-1 in the league, the Wolfpack have used wins over Maryland (then No. 4) on Sept. 19 and Duke (No. 8) last Friday to head up to No. 18 in the NSCAA poll and as high as No. 13 elsewhere.

America East
UMBC, which was picked in the preseason AE coaches poll to finish dead last in the conference, entered league play at 9-0-0, posting some of the best offensive numbers in the country and bursting into the top-20. Two games into AE play, the Retrievers are 0-2 in-conference, the recipients of a loss at Vermont followed by a 2-0 blanking by UNH at home on Saturday. Up the coast, BU started the year with impressive showings out of conference, downing then-No. 14 UConn and a St. John’s team ranked as high as No. 1 in some polls. Ever since the Terriers hit conference play, they’ve floundered, going 1-2. After downing Stony Brook in the opener, BU fell in consecutive games to UNH and Hartford.

A massive conference with a proportionate amount of stories, we’ve got teams that have suffered – South Florida, most notably – and teams that have flourished – Connecticut, Notre Dame, Georgetown – within the conference confines. No. 3 USF blew out to a 5-1-1 start, including wins in its first two BIG EAST games. But the Bulls are only 2-2-1 in their last five games, including losses to unranked West Virginia and a tie against St. John’s (N.Y.), with a loss to BIG EAST Red Division leader Louisville (who’s gone 5-1-1 in conference to, most likely, earn an elite ranking this week) sprinkled in. UConn, on the other hand, has run through the conference, taking the Blue Division lead by putting up a 5-1-1 mark in the league, compared to a 1-1-2 ledger outside of it – including a 3-0 loss to BU, a 2-1 loss to Rutgers and a tie with Iona. The Huskies are now unbeaten in their last five.

Big Ten
There may not be another conference as scrambled by upstarts and upsets as this one. Take Michigan State. The Spartans entered conference play at 4-1-1, taking their first loss of the season against San Diego – ending Avery Steinlage’s NCAA-record scoreless minute streak – a game before they opened Big Ten play against Ohio State. They haven’t won in-conference yet, falling to the Buckeyes and then dropping the next two to Penn State and Wisconsin, respectively. The Spartans had risen as high as No. 18. They’re nowhere close to ranked anymore. But ascending in their place are the Nittany Lions, who have yet to lose in-conference and look to be on the precipice of the NSCAA Top-25. Conference play began with PSU at 4-3-1 on Sept. 27, the day it beat Michigan. Now, the Lions stand at 7-3-2, with a 2-0-1 mark in the league, including a tie with No. 21 Northwestern on Sunday.

Through its first game in Colonial Athletic Association action – a 3-0 win over Delaware Old Dominion won four straight games. The Monarchs haven’t won since, going 0-1-2 in three games against UNC-Wilmington, William & Mary and Towson, in that order, to fall to 6-3-1 and ninth in the 12-team conference. The middle of those opponents, however, now sits atop the chart with a 3-1 mark in the league, as William & Mary’s lost only once in its last seven. Hofstra, a team that came into the conference at just 2-4, has fared as well as the Tribe, putting up a 3-1 record with wins over Georgia State, VCU and Northeastern.

West Coast Conference
We got a blog comment today about how we should keep on the lookout for the University of San Diego – the author, named themanintheknow, isn’t too off from his moniker. But he may have been a little late. It’s hard to ignore the Toreros now, after a weekend that saw them clip No. 17 Portland on Friday night and then down Gonzaga on Sunday. With the wins, USD is now undefeated in the WCC after coming into conference play at 4-3-0, including losses to Penn and Dartmouth. Portland, on the other hand, has slowed a little in league play. The Pilots entered the WCC at 5-1-1, and have now gone 1-1-1 in their last three (after opening with a win over Santa Clara.)

**Some conferences, such as the Ivy League, Big West, MAC and A-10, have been omitted because they haven’t had enough games yet, or because things have gone pretty much according to plan.

Finally, we get back to the Pac-10, where only two undefeated teams remain: No. 4 UCLA and unranked Washington. They’re teams that exist on opposite sides of the college soccer spectrum. UCLA’s led by Kyle Nakazawa, he of the seven-game scoring streak, while Washington gets its scoring everywhere – “we don’t have one star – we’re a team of stars,” Wurzberger said.

But they share two common virtues right now: not having lost in a conference that features two of the nation’s top-5 teams and a schedule behind them littered with top-tier competition.

“We benefitted from playing tough teams,” Wurzberger said. “We did take some losses … but a lot of our senior class say they’re grateful for the schedule.

“We’re only eight weeks in, going on 9,” he continued. “It takes a team some time to jell. We have a lot of returners, but every year is different and you have to put the pieces together.”

It’s still early, definitely, with all six teams having played three or four games in-conference. But in a small conference where every matchup matters for a team that’s backed itself into a corner, we see what conference play means: a chance.

A chance that amounts, for Washington, to another month of ignored injuries and nights spent in planes, buses and vans. But a chance nonetheless.

“By no means have we accomplished anything other than a nice little run here,” Wurzberger said. “We need to find more points and stay in the race. But when a team starts believe in a goal, that makes you more of a threat, and once confidence begins to spread through a team, you have a double-advantage.”