SAN DIEGO — If anyone on the San Diego State soccer team, coach included, knows what it takes to reach the final four of the NCAA soccer tournament, it is Chris Keenan. After all, he is the only one who has been there.
Keenan, a sweeper who transferred to SDSU for his senior season, played on the 1984 Indiana team that lost the championship game to Clemson.
He is familiar with championship programs, championship players and championship coaches. So how does he rate this SDSU team, which will play Harvard Saturday in the national semifinals, to those great Indiana teams?
"No way you could compare this team, talent-wise or anything else," Keenan said. "Indiana broke the NCAA record for most consecutive wins. They won 46 games, 30 against top 20 opposition, two national championships, and had been in the national championship four out of five years."
Keenan was not trying to insult his new teammates, but was simply stating the obvious. Indiana is to soccer what Indiana is to basketball--a national power with all the requisites, starting with the full NCAA complement of 11 soccer scholarships. SDSU has three. But Keenan said there is more to winning than talent.
"This team has got less talent but as much desire, if not more desire, to get there," Keenan said. "That's what has worked for us more than anything else--our desire."
The Aztecs (19-5) have ridden that feeling to the NCAA final four in Clemson, S.C., where they will play Harvard (14-0-3) in the first semifinal Saturday at 10 a.m. PST. Clemson (16-5) will play North Carolina (20-4) in the second semifinal at noon.
The winners will meet for the championship Sunday at 10 a.m. PST.
The Aztecs, who finished 18th in the final Soccer America poll, are the lowest-ranked team this season to advance this far--Harvard was No. 4, North Carolina No. 8 and Clemson No. 16--and they have had to do so by winning three consecutive road games.
Let Coach Chuck Clegg recite the road to Clemson:
"We go to St. Louis and beat them at their place (2-1). We beat Southern Methodist (3-2 on penalty kicks), which was fifth-ranked in the country, on AstroTurf, which we hadn't played on in three years. And then we have to beat UCLA (2-1), which we hadn't beaten since I was a freshman in college (at SDSU in 1969). That's quite an accomplishment."
The next opponent is Harvard, the Ivy League champion. But don't let the Crimson's academic credentials fool you. These guys know how to win at more than "The College Bowl."
Harvard is making its second consecutive trip to the final four, having lost to Duke, 3-1, in last year's semifinals. The Crimson advanced by winning in overtime at Connecticut, 1-0, and defeating Adelphi, 3-0. They received a bye in one round.
Harvard has scored 45 goals and allowed only 14.
"Harvard plays a lot like us," Clegg said. "They counterattack quickly, have some fast players up front, play a 4-3-3 and have two outstanding scorers, just like we do."
Harvard's top scorers are sophomores David Kramer and Paul Baverstock, who have combined for 18 goals and 5 assists. SDSU is led by senior Kyle Whittemore (17 goals, 5 assists) and freshman Eric Wynalda (11 goals, 11 assists).
"Making the final four is the ultimate objective of any coach," said Clegg, who is in his sixth season as Aztec coach. "Once you get there, it's how the players react to each team."
That the Aztecs are in the final four is quite an accomplishment for a team that was embarrassed by UCLA at home in the last week of the regular season, 3-1, and had to overcome the loss of its top goalie, senior Felipe Hernandez, 11 games into the season.
Clegg was almost ashen-faced the afternoon Hernandez broke his leg in practice. Hernandez had 6 shutouts and an 0.98 goals-against average in 10 games. His replacement, Bryan Finnerty, had started only one game, and had spent much of his three seasons at SDSU on the bench.
Clegg wandered around the training room area that day, wondering and speculating about what the loss of Hernandez would mean to his team. He sounded as if he expected the worst.
"I didn't know what Bryan could do for us because he played so little," Clegg said. "Goalkeepers are hard to figure out. They are their own breed."
But Finnerty has done more than fill in for Hernandez; he has statistically outplayed him. Finnerty, a redshirt sophomore, has seven shutouts and an 0.84 goals-against average in 14 games. He also has done nothing to change Clegg's view on goalies.
Finnerty sports a modified Brian Bosworth haircut, complete with "SDSU" shaved into one side.
"There was a lot of pressure at the point I came in," Finnerty said. "We felt if we wanted to make the playoffs, we couldn't lose any more games, and I had to get the job done."