Coach Runeare explains how a passion to prove themselves has wrought success for men’s soccer players. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Coach Runeare explains how a passion to prove themselves has wrought success for men’s soccer players. Photo by Devika Agarwal.

The UC Santa Cruz men’s soccer team is out to prove the adage that numbers don’t lie. With an 8-0-1 record they’re well on their way to proving that they deserve their current ranking as the fourth-best Division III team in the nation, according to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA).

Head coach Michael Runeare won’t let the numbers get to the players’ heads, though.

“We’ve been talking a lot about how they’re just numbers and not indicative of where we want to be at the end of the year,” Runeare said. “It’s just coaches making evaluations early in the season so it’s not relevant to whether we will get into the postseason.”

He added that while the team is proud of the recognition, it’s the rankings by the main governing body, the NCAA, that really matter in the end.

“The NCAA rankings don’t come out until mid-October, and you need to be ranked in the top seven in the Western region to qualify for the playoffs,” Runeare said. “Then there’s a selection Sunday [where the NCAA picks who will go to the playoffs].”

Third-year center forward C.J. Villalobos agrees with his head coach, saying that although the team is fully aware of their stature on the NSCAA list, they don’t take it too seriously because they realize how short-lived it could be.

“We realize it’s so early in the season that we could be dropped right away if we lose a game, so we don’t really think about it and let our performance speak for the numbers,” Villalobos said.

UCSC wasn’t actually ranked in the NSCAA Top 25 Poll at the start of the season. They cracked the top 10 after two overtime victories on the road against the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran to start the season, two games which Coach Runeare points to as indicative of the team’s overall success.

“I think the two victories we had in Seattle showed the players we could win in that they played in away games in overtime and were able to win and it gave them confidence,” Runeare said. “I think last year they lacked an ability to overcome those hurdles, [but] this year they have an identity.”

Villalobos agrees that the team has a different attitude this year and thinks that a large part of its success comes from motivation to make up for last year, when the team finished with an 8-7-2 record and didn’t make the playoffs.

“We all came out this summer training harder than we’ve ever trained because we’ve wanted to prove something, and that’s why our team is so good,” Villalobos said. “We’ve got the passion from not making the playoffs last year that [makes us] want to go all the way.”

Brendan Ward, senior central defender and co-captain, credits Coach Runeare with improving overall team play. Runeare is entering his first full year as the head coach of the men’s team after spending six years with the women’s team.

“Coach Michael Runeare has helped us out a lot this season,” Ward said. “The players connect better with Mike and he gives us a lot of good info on the field that’s really helped our team out.”

Runeare says it is critical that the team keep the momentum going, especially over the next couple of weeks when they will run into some tough opponents. He points to this Friday’s home game against Chapman (6-1-0) as one of those potentially challenging match-ups, as well as an upcoming trip to Dallas to play Austin College and the University of Dallas (who beat UCSC at home last year).

“Friday’s game against Chapman is going to be a really big test for us, [especially since] they’re also a D-III independent,” Runeare said. “Generally if someone goes to the postseason as an independent it’s going to be one of us two teams.”

Meanwhile, Ward says the key to continuing to be successful this season lies in the team chemistry.

“We really just have to keep improving every day. We have to respect and love each other and be extremely close like a family, and I think we’re getting to that.”