Cal exemplifies textbook approach to team building
University of California men's soccer coach Kevin Grimes refers to his team's experiences last season as a history book or encyclopedia of sorts for the team to use heading into 2007.
It was quite a story for the Golden Bears. For the first time in the seven-year history of Pac-10 soccer, Cal won the conference title. The team advanced to the Sweet 16. Five players had the opportunity to continue their careers in various professional leagues.
"It's like a book at the library," Grimes said. "It sits on a self, and if we need it to check on a few things, we will, but then we close it up and put it back. We don't carry that book with us everyday, and it's certainly not the only book, but if we need it for a reference, we'll use it."
The 2007 version will be a completely different edition, but it will pull from past works.
Here's a look at how the "Story of the Cal Men's Soccer program" has evolved:
The first year in the Pac-10 was less reference book, more manuscript. The coaching staff had no real chance to recruit players, and the team struggled in the transition from the Mountain Pacific Soccer Federation to the Pac-10.
The team finished 6-13-1 overall in 2000. That season would have been a rough first draft, but the ending was great. The far-from-ranked Golden Bears pulled off two of the year's biggest upsets. In the final weeks of the season, Cal bested No. 7 UCLA and No. 3 Indiana.
"All that happened at the end of the season, and we ended on a really high note," Grimes said. "That team got us a great jump-start on recruiting in 2001 and helped us grow as a program."
That campaign illustrated the goal of Grimes and every other soccer coach: peaking at the season's end. Although the first year in the Pac-10 was not as "disappointing as it looks on paper," the team realized there was still a ways to go. The real goal was to get into the NCAA Tournament -- where upsets like those would be more than just moral victories.
It didn't take long. Cal qualified for the postseason in 2001 for just the second time in school history.
More recent volumes
The Bears have made it to the NCAA Tournament every season since their first trip under Grimes (six straight postseason berths) -- highlighted by an Elite Eight appearance in 2005.
"Each year has its own challenges," Grimes said. "[But to go] from 2000 to seven years later winning a conference like the Pac- 10 has been a big thing."
It's been a constant and rather rapid progression.
"The year before I came, the team barely made the playoffs," senior forward Javier Ayala-Hil said. "Then the next year, we made it to second round, then Elite Eight, then Sweet 16 last year. Our coach is building a really strong program."
As the program has become one of the best in the nation, there has been more than just a shift in talent level -- although that has increased as well.
"When I was a freshman, you'd fight and you'd hope to win," senior midfielder Andrew Jacobson said. "Now, the past couple of years, we've done well, and it's an expectation of winning. But we know it doesn't just come, and it takes a lot of work to win."
That's especially true in the Pac-10. Four of the conference's six teams received NCAA berths in 2006, and that group excluded a Stanford team that finished third in the conference. Cal made the Sweet 16 and UCLA finished national championship runner-up.
Expectations of the 2007 edition
Repeating as Pac-10 champions will obviously be a goal this season, but it won't be easy.
"To win a conference like the Pac-10, you obviously have to be playing at a very good level," Grimes said. "But you need to have a little bit of luck along the way."
Many games are decided by a single goal, maybe two. Furthermore, one win over a conference opponent guarantees nothing down the road.
"They will make adjustments after a game because you play everybody twice," Jacobson explained of Cal's Pac-10 rivals. "They play like professionals. … You've really got to be strategic to win."
That concept is something new to some of this year's additions.
"The guys that got to experience [last year] really know what it takes to win the Pac-10 and win games," Jacobson said. "It's not something you're just given. Freshmen don't always get that because they've always been probably the best on their teams and have won games on just ability."
Although the team is doing everything it can to bring its new players up to speed as quickly as possible, learning how to win on the collegiate level comes with time. Still, everyone involved with Cal's program believes the talent is there.
Learning from last season will also play into this year's processes. Last season, Grimes said he felt the team sometimes got caught up in what others -- family, friends, media, etc. -- expected from the program.
"It's important that our team realizes expectations will be internal," Grimes said.
The importance of that will likely be reinforced this week as the team dropped from the top 10 in the polls after a 1-0 loss to Wisconsin on Sunday.
Cal realizes this year's story will need to combine the best of all the previous versions while the team works to add another chapter.
"The goal is to learn from last year and use those efforts going forward," Grimes said.
And, of course, maybe take a page from other in-state teams.
After all, in 2002, the national championship game was a Pac-10 final with UCLA and Stanford. Last year, it was another pair of Golden State teams in UCLA and UCSB. Will this be the year Cal joins that list?
"It certainly would be nice," Grimes said. "We'll certainly give it our best shot. That's for sure."
Winning it all -- or even making a College Cup appearance -- would be another tremendous experience to refer to in the Golden Bears' ever-growing archive.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.