A win over attacking, seventh-seeded New Mexico (13-5-2) on Saturday at 5 p.m. at packed Husky Soccer Stadium will put No. 2-seed UW (16-1-4) in its first-ever Final Four. As senior flip-throw artistsays: “We’ve come from the bottom to the top.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – The Huskies’ mantra for this week, entering the biggest match their program has ever had, is “enjoy the moment.”
And what a moment to enjoy. This is the highest time in the 50-year history of Husky soccer.
Saturday at 5 p.m. at packed-again Husky Soccer Stadium, No. 2 seed Washington (16-1-4) meets seventh-seeded New Mexico (13-5-2) in the first NCAA tournament round-of-eight game UW has ever played. It’s on Pac-12 Networks, pac12.com and here on GoHuskies.com. The winner of the Huskies’ third home NCAA match in three weekends advances to the NCAA Final Four in Philadelphia Dec. 13-15 to determine the national champion.
According to flip-throw goal creator Michael Harris, the current theme music for the Pac-12 champions’ magical ride should be Drake.
You know, Started From the Bottom.
“Since I’ve been here (2010), when we first started that year I remember we were picked to finish last in the Pac-12. So I’ve really seen it come from the bottom to the top,” the senior defender said this week.
He was referring the final season under long-time coach Dean Wurzberger.
Then Jamie Clark arrived. He changed the team’s culture to a fun-loving, player-empowering one. He installed more playmaking to compliment a rugged, unyielding defense and extraordinary goal keeping. He jolted the program into the national elite, now one win from the school’s first soccer Final Four.
Clark is 41-10-9 since arriving for the 2011 season. That’s 41 wins in less than three full seasons. It took the Huskies the previous five seasons immediately before Clark got here to win 41 games.
“It’s pretty nice to see the turnaround. Everyone has a positive attitude – on the team and also in the fans,” said Harris, who grew up just north of Seattle in Shoreline and had followed UW soccer for years. “We are getting fans out here. Our community aspect has grown, a lot.
“I think that’s the biggest thing Jamie has done for us.”
Liviu Bird is a former Seattle Pacific goalkeeper who is now a freelance writer and coach. He dug through all Huskies box scores from season’s past to compile the best-attended UW men’s soccer home games in school history. The second-round NCAA win over Seattle University on Nov. 24 attracted an overflow crowd of 3,100. That was the most to see a stand-alone men’s game ever at Washington. (An Oct. 22, 2000 match against Stanford attracted 3,280, but that was part of a doubleheader with the UW women’s team meeting UCLA).
Last Sunday, 2,690 watched Washington’s 1-0 win over Stanford in the third round on a cold, windy night beside Lake Washington. Saturday’s crowd, given the stakes, may set a new standard.
Just like this team.
It began late last summer with the start of a school-record 15-game unbeaten streak. That run continued even after losing star goalkeeper Spencer Richey four games into the streak. The senior candidate for national player of the year sustained a season-ending broken leg in the scoreless draw at Connecticut Sept. 10.
Part of Clark’s revival of UW soccer has been top-level recruiting, and it paid off richly this season. Last year he got towering, 6-foot-7 Ryan Herman to come back home after Herman had spent a first college year redshirting at Santa Clara. The All-American at Mount Si High School in the Seattle suburb of Snoqualmie was a national junior team member who’s been through the Seattle Sounders FC Academy. He finished the shutout at Connecticut after Richey got hurt and has gone unbeaten in 15 of his 16 starts, with eight shutouts. Fourteen times in those 16 starts he has allowed no more than a single goal.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s been a great year. And hopefully it’s not over,” Clark said. “When it’s over we can sit back and enjoy it over the holidays. But we want another great week of work, and it’s a grudge match that we are getting in New Mexico.”
The Lobos of the Mountain West Conference play a far more stylish game than Stanford tried against the Huskies last Sunday. The Cardinal sought to shorten the game with incessant kicks out of bounds, playing for overtime and a potential shootout.
Clark said UW won by “attrition” over Stanford. New Mexico, by contrast, will attack.
The other reason Clark says this national quarterfinal is a “grudge match”: He calls UNM coach Jeremy Fishbein his “mentor” – that is, other than Clark’s father Bobby, the coach at Notre Dame.
(Get this: the Huskies could play Notre Dame in a father-son matchup at the Final Four, if Washington wins and third-seeded Notre Dame beats 11th-seeded Michigan State earlier Saturday).
Plus, when Huskies assistant coach Jeff Rowland was a senior at New Mexico in 2005, Clark and Fishbein coached the Lobos to the national-final match.
Through it all -- Richey’s broken leg, the record unbeaten streak, the highest national ranking in school history (No. 2), Herman’s heroics, Harris’ amazing flip throws, and now this showdown with New Mexico to get to the Final Four – the Huskies have stayed with their mantra of enjoying the moment.
Saturday’s, with a berth in the Final Four on the line, could be their best moment yet.
“We're having fun, each and every game. We'll see who we've got next, and we'll plan it that way," said Harris, who was showing off a freshly shaved head Thursday morning during the Huskies’ frosty, 29-degree practice. "We're not thinking about, 'Oh, we've got to beat this record, we've got to beat this record.' At the start of the year we had the longest unbeaten streak in our history, and we hardly noticed that, to be honest.
“Our team's just moving forward now."
Into the best placed Washington soccer has ever been.
“Enjoy the moment,” Clark repeated. “I mean, guys are happy. They love each other. They love training. They love playing. That shouldn’t change on game day. It’s a big moment, a big situation, but enjoy it. Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the week.
“And I really, really hope that we get one, final week out of it. Because that would be something special for them.”