The rugged Huskies (4-0-1) have allowed just two goals all season, despite losing star goalkeeper Spencer Richey to a broken leg. They haven’t been this highly ranked since George Bush – the senior one – was president. “And we aren’t content.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Taylor Peay arrived at UW when Husky men’s soccer was sunk.
Washington was coming off a five-win abyss in 2009, its fewest victories in a season in 39 years. Peay was one of two Huskies freshmen to play in all 17 games of 2010, when UW went 5-5 in the Pac-12 and finished third in the league.
So excuse the senior defender from Salt Lake City if this season’s soaring, 4-0-1 start and the hummin’ Huskies’ No. 6 national ranking blow his mind.
“Yeah, it does, definitely,” Peay, last week’s national player of the week, said Wednesday following practice at the Dempsey Indoor facility. “I mean, my freshman year we didn’t even make the tournament. We were in the middle in the Pac-12.
“Then, since Jamie’s gotten here it’s just changed. Everything.
“It’s just crazy.”
“Jamie” is coach Jamie Clark. He arrived from Creighton in 2011 to replace 19-year UW coach Dean Wurzberger. In just over two seasons Clark has transformed the Huskies from frustrated to phenomenal.
Under Clark, Washington is 29-9-6. That includes a taut, home loss to UCLA last winter that cost the Huskies their first conference title in a dozen years. UW went 13-5-3 and 7-1-2 in the conference last season and made its first NCAA tournament since 2007. The Huskies beat Air Force in the opening round then lost at Clark’s former Creighton team in the second round.
This season, despite an overturned roster with 13 new players – including some of the nation’s top recruits -- plus the loss of goalkeeper Spencer Richey, a candidate for the Missouri Athletic Club’s Hermann Award as the nation’s top player, to a broken leg, these Dawgs may be even tougher. They have allowed just two goals in five games entering Friday’s 7 p.m. match against Florida Gulf Coast (0-3-1) at Husky Soccer Stadium and Sunday’s 3 p.m. home match against Georgia State (0-5).
The last time the Huskies finished any season ranked as high nationally as they are now, George Bush – the senior one – was president.
That was 1992, Wurzberger’s first season leading UW. Those Huskies finished 15-3-3 and won the Pac-10 with a 6-1 league record, but lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
These Dawgs are focused on going way past that.
“I think we can contend for a national championship and a Pac-12 championship,” said Peay, who had eight points on four goals during wins over Santa Clara and Portland earlier this month to earn his Pac-12 and national player-of-the-week honors.
“If we keep doing the things that we are doing, improve while we’re doing that, we should be in a good spot.”
Ryan Herman finished off the final six minutes of last week’s scoreless draw at No. 3 Connecticut, after Richey was lost for the season. He then made some circus saves to lead UW to a 1-0 win at No. 25 Brown last weekend.
Herman agrees the program’s first national title is what the Huskies are focused on this season.
“I mean, national champions, that’s what we want. Anything less and we will be disappointed,” the redshirt sophomore transfer from Santa Clara said. “Last year we exceeded expectations by going to the (NCAA) playoffs, but then when we were sitting on the field after the Creighton loss we were upset.
“That’s exactly how it is now. Coming off the tie at the No. 3 school in the country, UConn, and some people were hanging their heads. We weren’t happy with that. The only thing we want is to go undefeated. If we do lose, it’s going to be bad. … We’re not going to be happy with any losses, at all.”
All this from a precocious program that has finished with fewer than three losses over a full season just once. That was the 18-2-1 conference champion of 1982 – which then lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Huskies have made the NCAA tournament 20 times in 50 years of men’s intercollegiate soccer, two times since 2007. UW has reached the third round of the NCAAs just once in its history.
So doesn’t this talk of a national title this season sound a tad, um … crazy?
“Yeah, it does,” the new top goalkeeper said. “But at the same time, that’s what we’ve been thinking. We can do it. I mean, the freshman coming in, the talent – I’ve never been on a team that has this much talent.”
Clark, the architect of this turnaround and its resulting confidence, isn’t exactly downplaying the lofty goal setting.
“It’s big goals,” the coach said. “And big expectations.”
No, even at undefeated, barely scored upon and No. 6 in the nation, the Huskies feel they aren’t nearly where they should be.
Just as in 2012, the majority of the Huskies’ 10 goals through five games this season have come off set pieces: corner kicks, direct or indirect kicks -- or the amazing, body-flip throw-ins of senior defender Michael Harris.
Two of Harris’ long-ranging, somersaulting throws ended in goals in the 4-1 win over Santa Clara this month. It’s like having a corner kick anywhere on the field, along any sideline.
“We’d like to be scoring more goals out of the run of play. And to be honest that’s what we work on most in training,” Clark said. “But we know we can always hang our hat on defending and set pieces. We are going to be very good if we do those well.
“But we are going to be great if we start to actually find the net in the run of play. That’s the separation. Last year we were very good, but we never got to the level of being great, of one of the 10 elite teams. That’s the step we are trying to make.”
The instant Richey, UW’s All-America candidate, collided with a UConn player on a 50-50 ball late in last week’s draw, the Huskies’ season seemingly was at a crossroads.
“I mean, definitely,” said Peay, who has been part of the back-line team that has consistently denied opposing scoring chances away from the middle of the field for most of the last two seasons. “But at the same time you’ve got think Ryan Herman is one of the best keepers in the nation, behind Spencer. And then he came in did well. We have confidence in him.
“He had to come up with big saves to help us win that game (last weekend at Brown). Without those saves it probably would have been 1-1, maybe 2-1 them.”
Herman is from Sammamish, Wash., and went to Mount Si High School. He was unhappy with Santa Clara and transferred from there after one year marred by a torn Achilles tendon.
One reason: Clark.
“He’s just a great guy, a great coach,” Herman said. “He’s just a genuinely nice person.”
Clark and his coaching staff -- which, like the head man played professional soccer – believe they have a genuinely fine goal-keeping tandem. Now UW gets the chance to prove it with Herman in net for the rest of this surging season.
The Huskies need Herman to be as good as advertised, need more unwavering defense and more scoring in the run of play, to break through to a Pac-12 title and – yes – all the way to the 2013 NCAA College Cup national semifinals and finals in Philadelphia Dec. 13 and 15.
“You need more. And we’ll get more,” Clark said.
“It’s hard to walk off the field at 4-0-1 and be frustrated. But I will tell you – players and coaches alike – we aren’t content with where we are at. We know we have to get better.”
After these two weekend games, Washington hosts Southern Methodist (0-4) Sept. 27 to end non-conference play. The Pac-12 schedule begins at Stanford Oct. 3.
“Looking at Pac-12 play, you have three teams that are top 10 teams, four in the top 25. And the other two are probably just outside of it,” Clark said. “That’s a lot of tough games coming up.”