Aug. 3, 2006
BERKELEY - Coming off their most successful postseason campaign in school history, the California Golden Bears look to continue their success in 2006. Seventh-year head coach Kevin Grimes will look to a six-member senior class to lead his Bears past the NCAA tournament's elite eight, which they reached in 2005.
Last season, Grimes' squad produced a 14-4-3 record, a 6-3-1 Pac-10 record and a second-place conference finish. A fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance led to the overall No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, a first-round bye, a second-round tie with Santa Clara, 0-0 (Cal advanced, 5-4, on penalties) and a sweet 16 win over Wake Forest, 3-2 (2OT), which was Cal's fourth postseason victory in school history.
Cal lost six seniors and five starters from 2005 but retains a talented group of 14 returning letterwinners. Senior midfielder Nick Hatzke returns from a 2005 redshirt season due to injury and will be a key for the Bears. The product of San Jose, Calif., was Cal's leading scorer, with 22 points, in 2004.
Leading the way among the 2005 returners is junior midfielder Andrew Jacobson, a first-team All-Pac-10 selection and Cal's top returning scorer (4 goals, 7 assists, 15 points) from 2005. Jacobson was second to current junior midfielder/forward Luke Sassano in assists, as the latter had eight, along with two goals and 12 points, last year. Sassano and senior midfielder Eric Ebert were 2005 honorable mention All-Pac-10 picks. Another senior, defender/midfielder Steve Purdy, was a second-team All-Pac-10 pick in 2005.
"We are all looking forward to the 2006 season," Grimes said. "The 2005 season had some great moments and great success. We hope to continue that momentum with our program and in particular in the 2006 season."
Junior Javier Hil, junior Jacob Wilson and senior Matt Holtrust give Cal options for another strong frontline. Hil has the most experience, having played in 29 games, including nine starts as a sophomore. First-year forward Chris Cortez honed his skills with the Pateadores Soccer Club, one of the strongest youth clubs in the nation. Pateadores has also produced several veteran Cal players, including and junior defender Jeff Serafini and senior goalkeeper Mike Oseguera.
"Our forward line is creative and talented," Grimes said. "Javier Hil, Jacob Wilson and Matt Holtrust all have a great opportunity to have great seasons for Cal this year. We also have a younger forward in Chris Cortez who will add quality depth up front."
This could be the strongest area of the team for Cal. Hatzke is the most experienced Bears midfielder and returns for his fifth season after redshirting last season with an injury. In 2004, Hatzke's last competitive season, he was Cal's leading scorer (22 points) and led the Bears in goals (7), assists (8) and gamewinning goals (4).
The return of Hatzke will give the Cal midfield plenty of playmaking options, as returning starters Jacobson and Luke Sassano combined for 15 assists last season.
"Our midfield has always been the strength of our team, particularly the depth," Grimes said. "We have plenty of players who can contribute this year. Nick Hatzke will return this season and Andrew Jacobson, Eric Ebert and Luke Sassano all made great strides in 2005 and look to have breakout years."
Other Bears who will add depth in midfield include sophomores Michael Nieraeth, Pat Marion and Ian Ebert along with freshmen Anthony Avalos, Patrick Dolan, Hector Jimenez, Imaan Kerchgani and Evan Sassano, the younger brother of Luke Sassano. Jimenez and Kerchgani bring strong credentials to Berkeley. Jimenez, an attacking midfielder from Bell Gardens, Calif., was a member of the U.S. U-17 national team in 2004-05, while Kerchgani, from San Jose, Calif., was part of a Santa Clara Sporting Ruckus club that won the U-18 Cal-North state championship this past summer. Avalos and Evan Sassano played on that state championship team with Kerchgani. Brothers Ian and Eric Ebert, meanwhile, are both members of the Irvine Strikers, one of the top youth clubs in the nation that has produced several veteran Cal players and recent graduates.
Seniors Felder and Purdy will provide plenty of veteran leadership in the Bears' backline. Purdy, who has started 62 games in his Cal career, added second-team All-Pac-10 team honors as a junior to two previous All-Pac-10 honorable mention accolades. Meanwhile, Felder, who became a full-time starter last season, earned All-America first-team honors from the Jewish Sports Review.
Sophomore Tyler Barry and Serafini, a junior who has youth national team experience, will help round out the defense. Freshman Josh Leon will provide depth in what has been a stingy backline under Grimes.
"The adjustments we have made this past spring in our backline have turned out to be great ones," Grimes said. "With the presence of Steve Purdy, Tyler Barry, Andrew Felder and Jeff Serafini, our back four hasn't missed a beat. Kyle Rice and a slew of incoming freshmen also look to make a significant contribution to the back four."
Three players - Oseguera, junior Justin Myers and redshirt freshman Stefan Frei - will battle for the starting spot. Oseguera has the most experience of the returning goalkeepers, having started 17 and played 18 games as a redshirt freshman in 2003. The Huntington Beach, Calif., product posted a 0.96 GAA and seven shutouts; each mark ranked second in the Pac-10 that season. He also had 58 saves that season, when he earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention honors.
"All three of our goalkeepers have great qualities in their games," said Grimes. "This position has the most competition for playing time out of any other on the field."
Grimes has compiled yet another challenging schedule in 2006, with Cal playing six teams (Dartmouth, UCLA, SMU, San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Diego State) that reached the 2005 NCAA tournament. The Bears play two of those teams - the Broncos and Mustangs - on the road. SMU, Grimes' alma mater, reached the College Cup and lost to eventual champion Maryland in one semifinal.
UCLA and San Diego State combined with Cal to give the Pac-10 three teams in the postseason. All three also ended the season in Soccer America's top 25 national rankings, with UCLA ranked eighth, Cal ranked 11th and San Diego State ranked 22nd. Cal, which reached the elite eight, forged deeper into the tournament than the Bruins, who lost in the second round, and the Aztecs, who lost in the first round.
"Once again Cal is going to have a top 10 strength of schedule ranking," Grimes said. "Our players and coaches wouldn't want it any other way."