UC Santa Barbara came out of nowhere to win the national championship. Joseph Lapira came out of nowhere to win the Hermann Trophy. Those are just two of the top 10 stories in college soccer in 2006:
For the second time in four years, the College Cup looked more like the Winter Olympics. In 2003 in Columbus, the snow didn't postpone any games. Cup organizers weren't so lucky this time around. A fierce winter storm on the eve of the event meant that the semis were played a day late, and that both finalists were seriously fatigued in college soccer's showpiece match. The switch also affected national TV coverage, with the second semifinal getting bumped from ESPN2 altogether. And although the decider was played as scheduled, players and fans had to brave below-freezing temperatures. Has anyone considered that warm-weather sites might work a bit better in December? Alas, if history is any indication, the NCAA won't learn from its mistake.
9. Maryland contends
Even though the defending national champions were picked near the top of most preseason polls, nobody seriously expected much from rebuilding Maryland in 2006. But apparently, someone forgot to tell the Terrapins, who finished 16-5-1. Coach Sasho Cirovski summed up his squad's season perfectly after his side's OT loss to Notre Dame in the third round of the tourney: "We lost six kids to the pros last year and then we lost one of the best players in the country [Robbie Rogers, Heerenveen] to a pro contract in the preseason. A lot of people had us for dead this year [but] we beat a lot of great teams. I'm extremely proud."
8. UNC doesn't
What happened to the Heels? North Carolina was the top preseason pick in the ACC poll as well as at least one national one, but for whatever reason, its campaign was a nightmare from start to finish. Ten starters returned to Chapel Hill, but somehow the Tar Heels' chemistry was lacking. Not to mention the goals. Ben Hunter was UNC's main threat, but the Englishman couldn't do it alone. When the tourney seeds were handed out, Elmar Bolowich's men were lucky to get the 14th. But in the end, not even a first-round bye and home-field advantage could help them: Old Dominion upset the Heels in their opener.
7. It's not how you start
A month into the season, it seemed that Clemson and SMU were sure bets to return to the College Cup. Both teams had sluggish starts the year before, but late this September neither had lost a game. Unfortunately for Tigers and Mustangs fans, it turned out that their teams peaked way too early. The bright side? At least each had its respective season ended by an eventual finalist: SMU was dispatched by UCSB in its first tournament game, while Clemson lost to UCLA in the third round.
6. Record attendance
Attendance records continued to fall in 2006. On November 18, Maryland set a new NCAA mark by attracting 40,907 to Ludwig Field, only to have that number eclipsed by ACC rival Virginia a week later. UCSB outdrew a couple of MLS playoff games when 8,784 came out for its quarterfinal victory against Northwestern. But the most telling stat might be this one: According to Walker Humphries of CollegeSoccerNews.com, nine teams averaged more than 2,000 supporters a game this season, up from five the year before.
5. Wake's great year
Wake Forest came this close to reaching its first College Cup final, losing to eventual champ UC Santa Barbara on spot kicks in the semis. But 2006 still marked the most successful season in program history. Wake emerged as an elite team in the elite ACC, and its 18 wins set a school record. And although the Demon Deacons will lose senior free-kick specialist Steve Curfman to graduation, seven of the 11 starters from the UCSB game were either freshmen or sophomores. That bodes well for the Deacs' Cup chances the next two years.
4. UCLA's run
The Bruins may have come up short in the final, but UCLA still put together a remarkable tournament run. Coach Jorge Salcedo lost underclassmen Patrick Ianni and Marvell Wynne to MLS before the season, then had to do without stalwart defender Brandon Owens (medical redshirt) all year and leading scorer Maxwell Griffin (torn ACL) during the playoffs. But the Bruins went on a tear once they reached the dance, outscoring opponents 13-2 entering the finale. Along the way, they knocked off top-seeded Duke in Durham after trailing 2-0. The loss to UCSB stung, but with almost the entire roster returning in 2007, UCLA has the tools (and now the experience) to bounce back.
3. Beginner's luck
All new West Virginia coach Marion LeBlanc did after taking over the Mountaineers on the first day of the preseason was guide the program to its most successful season ever. Led by New Zealand international striker Jarrod Smith (14 goals), WVA posted a 15-3-3 record, went undefeated in 10 conference games on the way to the Big East regular-season championship and spent most of the 2006 campaign ranked in the top 10 nationally, getting as high as third overall. For his efforts, LeBlanc was named Coach of the Year by Soccer America Magazine.
2. Lapira takes home the Hermann
How far under the radar was Notre Dame forward Joe Lapira in August? The Louisiana native wasn't even included on the Big East's preseason all-conference team, let alone the Hermann watch list. But after potting four goals (including the OT winner) in a 5-4 OT win at Indiana on Sept. 3, Lapira never stopped scoring. En route to winning soccer's version of the Heisman, the junior tallied 10 more game-winners and six additional multiple-goal games, finishing with 22 goals and 50 points to lead the nation in scoring (and the Irish to an NCAA quarterfinal berth). What could be more impressive than that? The fact that Lapira did it all on a bum knee: He tore his left lateral meniscus in the first match of the season.
1. UCSB wins it all
Coach Tim Vom Steeg called it destiny, but even he didn't think his Gauchos had a prayer of hoisting the College Cup after starting the season 7-6. Then his squad went on one of the most memorable runs in college soccer history, rattling off 10 wins in its last 11 games to win the program's first national crown. To do it, the Gauchos had to overcome storied in-state rival UCLA, a team UCSB had beaten exactly twice in 33 tries all-time prior to the finale. But playing on less than a day's rest, Vom Steeg's unseeded side put on a masterful performance and defeated the Bruins 2-1. Back in Santa Barbara, singing Gauchos fans celebrated by taking a full-size goal frame on a lap of honor. Priceless.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.