BERKELEY – After missing out on the NCAA Tournament the past two years, the Cal men’s soccer team has no interest in a threepeat.
The Bears opened training camp for the 2013 season Wednesday morning full of energy and optimism. With several key players returning and an influx of promising freshmen, Cal has its sights set on reclaiming its rightful spot in the postseason and doing some damage once there.
“We’re all extremely hungry to make it to the postseason,” said senior defender Ryan Neil, an All-Pac-12 second team pick last season. “These past two seasons have been a little bit of a letdown for us. We all know that we’re more than capable of making it to the postseason and even farther. It’s definitely been eating at us, so we’re going to do everything we can to make it there this year.”
The Bears finished 8-7-3 last season and in fourth place in the Pac-12 standings. Along with Neil, Cal returns four other All-Pac-12 honorees in junior goalkeeper Kevin Peach, junior midfielder Seth Casiple, junior defender Christian Dean and junior forward Stefano Bonomo.
“They’ve got a lot of pride,” Cal coach Kevin Grimes said. “Traditionally, we’ve had some great runs in the tournament. They don’t want to let (missing the postseason) happen again.”
Neil said when last season ended, the Bears held a players-only meeting to determine what they needed to do to get back to the postseason. The team decided one of the most important things was to be in top physical condition when training camp arrived.
So under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach David Ziemba, the Bears went through a grueling offseason conditioning program. In individual fitness testing that was administered at the end of spring and summer, Cal’s players rated higher than they ever have.
“This is the most fit we’ve ever been coming into preseason,” Neil said. “This is our time. We have a great team. We’re ready.”
Another reason for the Bears to be optimistic is the healthy return of senior defender Steve Birnbaum, who was a preseason All-American last season but ended up playing in just two matches because of a knee injury. Birnbaum was an All-Pac-12 first team selection in 2011.
“You can’t replace that senior leadership,” Grimes said. “It’s just impossible. They want to get their game to the highest level but more important for them is to be able to raise the bar for the entire team. When you’re a senior, you play differently.”
The Bears will get a chance to see where they stand nationally immediately. They open the season on Aug. 30 at home against Georgetown, which is ranked No. 3 in the preseason NSCAA rankings. Two days later, Cal welcomes No. 2 Maryland to Edwards Stadium.
“These guys are hungry,” Grimes said.