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FIRST AND FOREMOST : Caba Hones Leadership Role After All-American Season

October 05, 1989|GARY KLEIN | Special to The Times

Jay Caba settled onto his sofa last winter, rifled through the newspaper in search of the sports section and prepared for a leisurely Sunday morning. While perusing the stories, scores and standings, Caba's eyes eventually fell upon the soccer category that appeared on the statistics page.

Caba, a center-halfback for the Occidental College soccer team, scanned the entry, which included a list of players who had been selected to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division III All-American team.

"I thought, 'Oh, I wonder if anyone we played against made it,' " Caba recalls. "The first team was all guys from the East Coast.

"I got down to the third team and I couldn't believe it--my name was on the list."

Caba (pronounced SAW-ba) thus became Occidental's first All-American in soccer, an honor he achieved during a season that featured several notable firsts for the Tigers, including:

* A 9-8-2 overall record and 8-4 mark in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference during Lowell Thomas' first season as coach.

* A 1-0 victory over perennial power Claremont, the first time Occidental had defeated Claremont since Occidental began keeping records in 1976.

Buoyed by the team's accomplishments in 1988, this season Caba is attempting to lead the Tigers to their first SCIAC championship. He had two goals and six assists going into Wednesday's match against Claremont.

"He's an excellent player and whenever we play Oxy, we want to keep a close eye on him," said Claremont Coach Steve Davis, who is in his 21st season with the Stags. "You don't go out there with the intention of fouling him, but you want to make sure he's marked."

Caba, a senior economics major, is one of only four players back from last season's team. The Tigers' roster includes nine freshmen and seven sophomores.

Caba, 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, said his status as a returning All-American has focused an even greater spotlight--and responsibility--upon him.

"It kind of put the pressure on for this year," Caba said.

By all accounts, however, he has responded to the challenge.

"He's performed up to expectations," said Thomas, who succeeded Brian Williams as the Tigers' coach. "He really took over the leadership role this year. In terms of field generalship, he has no equal.

"He's not authoritative, but he commands respect."

Caba, 21, demonstrated his leadership in last season's victory over Claremont. With the game scoreless at halftime, Thomas said he delivered his usual comments about staying alert and playing hard. Caba then took the team aside and explained that the players had a chance to do something that had never been done before by an Occidental soccer team.

"He made them believe they could win--and they did," Thomas said.

Caba developed his take-charge ability in high school in Oregon, where he was an all-state soccer player and an honorable mention all-state point guard in basketball.

"Playing center-halfback is almost the same as point guard," said Caba, who averaged 13 minutes a game last season as a reserve for the Occidental basketball team. "You have to develop the same mentality. You're a focal point and you're responsible for getting everybody else going."

However, as Caba neared graduation from Gladstone High, he said he wasn't sure where he was going, at least in terms of college.

When he explains the chronology that led to his arrival at Occidental, he begins with what has become a familiar refrain of Occidental athletes.

"I had received some letters from the school, but I had never heard of it," Caba said of Oxy. "I went and looked at Northwestern, but I didn't really have a good time over there. Chicago just wasn't for me.

"I came down here and had a great time. The guy who I stayed with brought me to the pool and, of course, it was 90 degrees and there was no smog for the first time in L. A. history. I go back home and I'm all tan and said, 'That's where I'm going to be.' "

After two seasons with the Tigers' soccer team, Caba wondered if he had made the right choice. Under Williams, a former Occidental player, the Tigers were 9-8-1 during Caba's freshman season and 7-11-1 in 1987. Team harmony was nonexistent.

Williams resigned and accepted a teaching job in Pasadena before last season after team members expressed dissatisfaction with his coaching style.

"It was almost like a coup d'etat, " Caba said. "I didn't have much of a part in it just because I was so frustrated by the whole thing."

Caba credits Thomas with bringing a mature demeanor to the Occidental program.

And while he expects his soccer career to end after this season, Caba, the All-American, is applying for a fellowship that will allow him to study the game in Europe and Latin America--specifically, it's cultural impact with regard to fan violence.

"I want to find out why they're like that," Caba said. "It's a different culture, something I don't think we can understand from over here."

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