Bill Durkin has a certain air about him when he's on the field for the Cal State Northridge soccer team.
He plays as if he's above everyone else. On another plane. Or maybe it just seems that way because Durkin so often leaves the ground for higher airspace while patrolling Matador territory.
Durkin, a senior from La Canada, is a monster of the midfield, heading off potential offensive threats by winning virtually every ball that calls for an elevated head-banging encounter with opponents.
"I've always been dominant in the air," Durkin says matter-of-factly. "I don't really work on it or anything.
"It's really just a matter of determination and just thinking to yourself, 'This guy is not going to win. I'm going to get up there and win it.' "
This weekend, Durkin will have his sights set on a higher victory when Northridge (10-4-4), ranked fifth in the latest National College Athletic Assn. Division II poll, plays host to 12th-ranked Cal State Hayward (16-5-0) in the NCAA regional.
A win over Hayward would earn the Matadors their third consecutive trip to the Final Four. Northridge has been the national runner-up each of the last two seasons.
Durkin, who was moved from sweeper to midfield midway through the season, is expected to play a major role in Northridge's final quest for the Division II national championship. Next year, the Matador program moves up to Division I.
"Bill's been very important in the last month," said Northridge Coach Marwan Ass'ad, who is in his seventh season with the Matadors. "He's been our most consistent player."
Durkin, however, had to undergo a change in his playing style before emerging as such a valuable member of the Matadors.
After redshirting in 1987, Durkin last season became the starting stopper in the Matadors' season-opening exhibition loss to UCLA.
But he gradually played himself out of the lineup until reaching the turning point in his career during the West Regional championship game at Seattle Pacific.
Northridge freshman Bobby Reyes scored all three of the Matadors' goals in a 3-2 victory that advanced Northridge to the Final Four, but after the match Ass'ad hailed Durkin as the team's hero for entering the game just before halftime and infusing the Matadors with a needed shot of aggressiveness.
Durkin's performance was the culmination of a season-long prodding from Ass'ad.
"Billy stopped being soft," Ass'ad recalled. "As a defensive player, he needed to get intimidating.
"When you tackle, you have to let people from other teams know that they can't come into your turf with the ball. Without playing dirty, you just tackle them so hard, legally, they say, 'Hey man, we don't want to go there.'
"I couldn't get that through to him for almost all of last year. I kept saying, 'you're too soft.'
"He made a change and now we can't play without him."
Durkin, 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, spent three years waiting for an opportunity to play at the intercollegiate level.
A two-time all-league player at St. Francis High, Durkin was accepted by Northridge out of high school, but chose instead to try his luck as a walk-on at Division I San Diego State.
"I guess San Diego seemed more adventurous," Durkin recalled.
Durkin played stopper for the Aztecs' freshmen team but, like so many other players that try the walk-on route, became disenchanted with his prospects for playing time on the varsity the following season.
He transferred to Pasadena City College, which did not have a soccer program, and stayed active by playing for a club team at USC.
On the recommendation of his high school coach, and Northridge players, Durkin enrolled at Northridge in the fall of 1987. But because he was transferring from a junior college after attending a different four-year school, Durkin spent the season as a redshirt, scrimmaging daily against players such as former Northridge All-Americans Joey Kirk and Thor Lee.
Two weeks ago, in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. finale against Cal State Bakersfield, Durkin made his most spectacular contribution to the Matador program--last year's Seattle Pacific match not withstanding.
Northridge was trailing, 1-0, when Durkin scored his first goal of the season with 36 minutes and 20 seconds left in the match. The goal set the stage for Don Imamura's match-winning penalty kick with 23 seconds left that gave the Matadors a 2-1 victory and their sixth consecutive conference title.
"It wasn't the prettiest shot in the world," Durkin said of his goal, only his third in two seasons. "I hit it and turned around thinking, 'Geez, I wanked it.'
"Then I looked back and saw it rolling right under the (goal) keeper and I'm saying, 'How the heck did that get in there?' "
Durkin is hoping Northridge can figure out a way to beat Hayward on Saturday so the Matadors will have the opportunity to do what the last two Northridge teams could not: win a national title.
"We've been to the Final Four and lost in the final game the last two years," Durkin said. "This time, we take it."