Club Canvas: Gauchos' Fortunes Looking Up?
During his hour and a quarter commute to UC Santa Barbara every day, Mario Waibel has plenty of time to think. Sure, he satisfies his cell phone obligations to recruits and others, but some of the time is dedicated to pondering what this season holds.
The view is a lot better - or perhaps ‘stable' is a more apropos word - now than the last time Waibel reflected about the Gauchos.
It was in the loge section at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Denver, the site of last year's national tournament, where Waibel outlined the obstacles he faced during the 2009 season. Defections, injuries, class conflicts, and the normal upheaval that comes with the introduction of a new coach all contributed to the Gauchos finishing the year with an 8-7 record, including a stunning exit in the SLC quarterfinals at the hands of Arizona.
Because the newly-minted selection committee put a primacy on tough schedules (and perhaps tradition), UCSB got the invite to Denver as the No. 12 seed and was promptly dispatched by No. 5 Colorado by the second-largest margin in the first round.
As he stood in Dick's between the semifinal games, Waibel wasn't mired in self-pity - he's one those guys who has boundless energy and is seemingly always looking at the bright side - but he did know he had a lot of work to do if he was going to get the Gauchos back to their former station atop the MCLA.
Driving up the coast to Santa Barbara earlier this week, Waibel felt like his team was a lot closer to it than where it was.
"This team is really fun," said Waibel. "The guys we brought in and the players already on the team have all really jelled together. We're just moving toward where we want and get back to our winning ways."
The players are obviously having fun as well, as some of the players who opted not to come out for last year's team are back in the fold and providing the Gauchos with the experienced depth it will need while breaking in the 13 new rookies who will be the future of the program.
"A few of the guys are really happy with the way the direction the team is going and have been able to make the commitment to achieving our goals," said Waibel. "That's the big thing. You've got to be able to play lacrosse and be a good student. It's a conscious decision. We had guys come back out and are having a lot of fun and that's because they made that commitment."
There are a couple of freshmen who are expected to earn significant amounts of playing time, like middie C.J. Jacobs and defender Kenny Smith, both of whom are out of Los Alamitos High School, but UCSB will be driven by the upperclassmen. Senior middies Ryan Sanders and Ryan Souza are both expected to have big years, according to Waibel, and junior attackman Jamie Bridgeman, a transfer from Stevenson, will bolster the offense.
Senior goalie Zack Carlson will likely handle the bulk of the heavy lifting, although he is being pressed by rookie Andrew Nota.
"It's a good competition," said Waibel. "They've got that good teammate/rivalry thing going on, which is awesome. Each one helping each other get better, but both want the starting spot."
The season kicks off this weekend for the No. 11-ranked Gauchos when they head to the Bay Area to face a couple of former WCLL rivals in Cal (Friday, 7 p.m. PST) and Stanford (Sunday, 1 p.m. PST). It will be a stern test, but that will be the norm this year. While UCSB has lofty goals, they also have the built-in safety net of another outrageously difficult schedule that should get them to Denver as long as they have a winning record.
And about those goals?
"We kept it real simple," said Waibel. "We stole something from a program that I admire a ton and that's Montana football, The Griz. We want to get better everyday, outwork everybody on and off the field, win our division, win our league championship, and win a national championship. That's it. Every decision we make will lead back to those goals."
Winning a national title will be anything but "real simple" for the Gauchos, but before the season starts everything seems attainable. We'll see how many goal UCSB actually pelts, but for now the view looks a lot better than seven months ago.
Harkins Setting Goals
Bill Harkins, Florida State's coach, has progressed nicely from a stroke he suffered late last year and has set a goal of standing on the sidelines for the Seminoles' season opener on February 6 against Auburn.
"The team has totally rallied around the situation," he said from his home in the Sunshine State. "I have a pretty mature team this year and they've sucked it up and said, ‘We'll do whatever it takes and put it on our shoulders.' I'm going through occupational therapy, physical therapy, and working out every day trying to get to that point where I can walk across the field and not be the center of attention."
Harkins has been out at practice every day, often with the aid of a walker or cane, and will sit in a wheelchair with a walkie-talking to stay in contact with his assistant coaches. He is still doing a lot of teaching, albeit at a lower volume.
"My swallowing and voice was paralyzed, so they can't hear me across campus like they used to," said Harkins, with a chuckle.
Harkins is working hard and is confident he'll reach his goal. We're pulling for him.
D-II Flexing Early Muscle
One of the interesting things that popped out at me while I was updating our MCLA schedules on LMO was the number of crossover games between the two divisions. A quick count came up with 43 before Feb. 22 even came around.
As if to put an exclamation point on that discovery, the first three games of the seasons were inter-divisional and two of them featured upsets. D-II Grove City (Pa.) traveled to Pitt and posted the 8-7 triumph while D-II Western Washington hosted Washington, rolling 11-6.
While technically upsets, they aren't earth-shattering results. WWU and GCC are serious contenders to make it to Denver while both UW and Pitt are likely to top out in their respective conference tournaments. And we'll need to see how all of these teams finish to understand whether these early scores were indicative of anything.
Still, don't assume just because you see an inter-divisional game on the docket that it will automatically mean an easy win for the big boys (although in the case of Simon Fraser v. Western Washington this weekend, it might be).
Slides & Rides
- Trivia question: can you name the team that boasts the largest schedule of countable (non-scrimmage) games in the MCLA? Answer later...
- Boston College could be walking a razor's edge this spring. With only one '09 tournament team on the schedule, the Eagles are essentially in an "automatic qualify-or-bust" situation. If B.C. stumbles in the PCLL tournament, they'll be outclassed in the all-important strength of schedule by a handful (ASU, Oregon, Michigan State, UCSB, Colorado, Colorado State) of likely at-large candidates.
- Do you think Augsburg will be ready when it takes on UMLL rival St. John's? They sure as heck should be. The Auggies play Bethel on Feb. 13 and then they play the Johnnies...wait for it...on April 10. That would be a 56-day gap, roughly double the span between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- Some teams just know how to put together a schedule. Washington University (St. Louis) boasts perhaps the sweetest slate. Of their 12-game schedule, 11 of them will be played on the Bears' campus and the remaining contest is at Missouri State - a three-hour van ride. Biola's isn't bad, either. The 14-game schedule has 11 of them at home in La Mirada (L.A. ‘burb) and one each at Occidental (25 miles), Cal State-Fullerton (8 miles) and UC Irvine (26 miles).
- My MCLA pick ‘em contest begins next week. I'll be squaring off with a former MCLA All-American and two-time national champion all season to prove my overwhelming knowledge of the association.
- Trivia: And the largest schedules goes to...well, it was Willamette. Will Patton's brigade from Salem, Ore., started with 18 games, which set them at the top, but since I came up with that trivia question, the Bearcats have lost their game against Pacific to a cancellation. This puts them at 17, tying Willamette with Lindenwood, San Diego and San Diego State.