The gutty little Bruins have reappeared at UCLA, this time in the form of the soccer team, which finds itself in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. quarterfinals despite losing 5 of 11 starters from 1986 to graduation, 2 others to the United States national team, 1 more to injury in the first game of 1987 and having 6 players battling hamstring problems and hernias and broken feet as well as the opposition.
So what are they doing one game away from a third trip to the Final Four in four years, with Sunday's 1 p.m. game against San Diego State (18-5) at UCLA's North Soccer Field the decider?
That could be a question a lot of people are asking. Bruin Coach Sigi Schmid, for one.
"We're surprised," Schmid said. "When you compare this team to last year's, which had a wealth of talent, it's mind-boggling. On paper, it just shouldn't have happened. But these guys have come through when their backs were to the wall with a team--and it really has been a team--effort."
To be sure, UCLA has gone 14-6-1 without mirrors--getting past the opposition on flukes, or, more so, of reflecting the NCAA championship team of 1985 or the group that reached the West Regional final last season. No Paul Caligiuri, a two-time All-American who graduated. No Tom Silvas, a member of the UCLA career top 10 in goals, assists and points who graduated. No Chris Roosen, who started 19 of 22 games last season but has missed all of 1987 after injuring his foot in the season opener against Cal State Northridge. No Lucas Martin, a member of the all-freshman team by Soccer America, or Ray Fernandez, both frequent starters last season as first-year players who opted for the national team.
But no chance?
"Teams we play were saying, 'All right, here's our chance to beat up on UCLA,' " said sophomore Steve Black, who came back after missing all of 1986 with a broken foot to be one of only two Bruins to start all 21 games. "We kind of like shoved it back in their faces and said, 'No, we're still a powerhouse.' "
If the '85 team that beat American University, 1-0, in an eight-overtime final at the Kingdome is remembered for its sheer talent, this may go down as the season of great coaching by Schmid. A CPA who attended UCLA as an undergraduate and got his MA in Business Administration from USC, he has done a balancing job with this team that even the Internal Revenue Service would applaud.
He started the season by pushing his players harder than ever on the field, hoping to force the issue and make a leader emerge on a team that had none. He also realized that conditioning would be more important to this group than previous technique-sound squads as they prepared for a new defensive alignment. Then, he became more vocal than ever, making his big stand after a disappointing September loss to Connecticut--"You might not want to win, but I'm not going to let you lose," he told the team. He hasn't fielded the same starting lineup twice since the fourth game of the season and has won seven of the last nine outings.
He changed his style, the team's strategy on defense, has faced what may be the toughest schedule in the nation and is still bearing down on the Final Four. The 34-year-old Torrance resident, who has been known to stay in his office nine hours after a game to talk with assistant coach Dean Wurzberger in hopes of getting a painful loss out of his system, must be sleeping well these days.
"Sigi is a very smart coach," said senior Peter Pelle, the team leader in assists. "He's pushed us a lot, especially right at the beginning. He has been really hard and expected a lot of things from us. But we needed to be a little tougher mentally. The past teams were stronger and had certain players who were more influential. There was the leadership thing that was missing. We didn't have a Dave Vanole or Dale Ervine or Paul Krumpe or Paul Caligiuri. Sigi was trying to create stronger personalities for us. He was trying to get to our inner drive.
"It definitely was a different approach. What he wanted from us was the same as past teams. He just went about it a different way."
It worked. UCLA has fast gained a reputation as a hard-working, scrappy team that has overcome injuries.
In the meantime, three players have stepped to the front in the leadership department: Senior Jeff Hooker, second on the team in points (19), sophomore Will Steadman, one of the keys to the improving defense, and Black, a member of the 1985 championship team and one of the few physical players left. Beyond that, sophomore Bill Thompson is tied for second in goals and assists and leads in points, and sophomore Anton Nistl has a 1.19 goals-against average in the nets.
Things are going so well that one of the team's negatives--letting up against weaker opponents--can be disregarded at this point. Moreover, a forfeit by Nevada Las Vegas in the last round gave some of the injured Bruins, including No. 1 goal scorer Nick Skvarna, who has played with a broken bone in his foot for six weeks, extra time off to heal.
"We have benefited from the injuries in that everyone has taken part in a big way," said Schmid, who is 132-24-20 (.807) in nearly seven seasons at UCLA. "Andy Burke started against Indiana and played well. Curtis Partain started and scored when he got the chance. So many people have come through.
"To me, the ultimate measure of success is if a team reaches its potential. For this team to be in position to gain access to the Final Four and win the championship, they would certainly have fulfilled that criteria."