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Oct 27, 2008

Aggies excel in transition to Division I

There are teams with storied soccer histories. Powerhouse programs that have made numerous College Cup appearances. Teams that have won numerous conference titles. Schools that have produced multiple Hermann Trophy winners.

Then there is UC Davis' men's program. For example, does anyone not affiliated with the school actually know the team's nickname?

That won't be the case for long if Davis keeps playing the way it has been this season. (They're the Aggies, by the way.)

After making its first NCAA tournament appearance last season, UC Davis is 12-2-3 overall, sits atop the Big West Conference standings at 4-1-3 and is the No. 10 team in the nation.

So where have they been before now? Let's call it Division I½.

For 14 years (1990-2003), the Aggies were a Division II program. But coach Dwayne Shaffer saw greater potential and pushed for a promotion to Division I. In April 2003, he got his wish.

Ecstatic that the effort had paid off, Shaffer knew a tough road lay ahead. The program had to go through a four-year transition period. From 2003 to '06, the team was unable to compete in the postseason. Players were ineligible to receive any kind of conference awards. The team was basically in limbo.

"It's been an extremely difficult transition going from Division II to Division I," Shaffer said. "The biggest thing has been just the perception from recruits that you're still a Division II program for a couple years."

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To convince prospective players to commit, Shaffer had to have a plan.

"It's something I put in place the day I found out we'd be a Division I program," he said. "The biggest thing I kept selling was the idea that we would have an opportunity to compete. For the young kids that were seniors last year and this year, I promised them I'd get them to a level where they'd be able to compete for a Division I [tournament] berth."

Shaffer delivered on that promise last year and is poised to do so again, something he credits to the players he's brought in and their willingness to believe in his vision.

"That's what recruiting is, getting players to believe in what you're telling them," senior midfielder Dylan Curtis said. "He really made me believe that his plan was going to work. He wanted to win, and I wanted to be on a team that wins."

They're both getting their wish. But it's about more than just wishes coming true. It's about hard work and experience paying off.

With 10 seniors on the roster and eight returning starters, the Aggies are a battle-tested team.

"We've kind of lost our title as an underdog," senior midfielder Ian Conklin said. "Before our freshman year, teams weren't looking at us as a huge threat. That's changed."

An 11-game undefeated streak, like Davis had from Sept. 7 through Oct. 18 this year, can strip a team of that title. In fact, the Aggies have gone from the team no one thinks twice about to the program everyone wants to beat.

"That's what we wanted," senior forward Quincy Amarikwa said of the target on his team's back. "We wanted teams to recognize that we're a threat. … When we win at the end of the day, the team has to say, 'They're not all hype.'

"Before, like two years ago, when we were under the radar, it would be like, 'Oh, they must have had a lucky game.' Or, 'The other team didn't take them seriously.' Now, there's no excuse for when we win. The people that we're playing are putting a lot more in on both sides of the ball. We're getting a lot more respect."

That respect has translated into rankings -- the up- and downside of which the team is experiencing for the first time.

"Keeping the rankings out of your head can be hard to do, especially for us just in our second year in Division I," Conklin said. "Just working hard is the biggest focusing point for us, and you try to block out the rankings as much as you can."

When that doesn't work, there's always the occasional tangible reminder.

"We got upset by Riverside [2-1] when we went down there, and that put our heads back pretty quick," said Curtis, who ranks second in the nation in assists per game (.67). "It's one thing to know you're good, but it's about having to prove it every day. We kind of got that reality. We played poor and Riverside played a great game. Sometimes it just takes being humbled."

Staying humble will be a key, but the pieces are all falling into place. After four years together, the team is jelling and ready to go.

"[Even during the transition years] we came in with a Division I mentality," said Amarikwa, who is among the top 10 in the country in goals per game (fourth with .93) and points per game (sixth with 1.93). "We wanted to prove we were at the caliber to compete. It was more just having to deal with the technicality that we couldn't advance [to the postseason] even though we had the potential, and we used that as motivation."

Whatever it is that's inspiring the team, it's working. Davis has certainly proven capable of competing. The next step for the program -- in addition to the obvious conference and national tournament aspirations -- will be to continue to build upon their success and establish themselves not just as a Division I program, but a Division I power.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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