Twenty years ago, men’s soccer stormed through an undefeated season to win the national championship. And launched a golden era for soccer on the Mission campus.
Steve Sampson didn’t end up as one of America’s most storied soccer coaches by thinking small. But in 1989 even he had no idea he was setting Santa Clara on a path to being a soccer power for a generation to come.
That year, the Santa Clara men’s team hadn’t so much as made the playoffs in a decade. But coming off his third year as head coach, Sampson believed they were on the brink of greatness. They just needed additional firepower.
Jeff Baicher ’91 was one of Sampson’s weapons. A community college star, Baicher remembers sitting with his parents in Sampson’s living room as the coach proclaimed that SCU was two puzzle pieces away from a national championship-Baicher and his college teammate Paul Bravo ’93.
“I’ll never, ever forget it,” Baicher says. “My mom started giggling.”
Indeed, Baicher’s whole family laughed at Sampson’s swagger, but he and Bravo took the bait. And soon the “Killer Bs” were bringing their scoring sting to “the worker bees,” the rock-solid defenders and tireless midfielders who gave the team its hustle and toughness.
It was a potent combination. The Broncos already had a daunting defense, giving up less than half a goal a game in the 1988 season, which included victories over heavyweights UCLA and that year’s national champs, Indiana. With the arrival of Baicher and Bravo, SCU’s offense similarly went into overdrive.
The team wasted no time putting the rest of the country on notice. In the season’s second weekend, Santa Clara traveled to North Carolina where they beat perennial power Duke in overtime before taking down North Carolina State University 3-1.
Had N.C. State’s players known, they might have patted themselves on the back for keeping it so close. Santa Clara would only give up only nine more goals all season long while blasting opponents with nearly 80 of their own goals, eviscerating teams like San Jose State 10-0.
As billed, Baicher and Bravo led the onslaught with 20 assists and 16 goals respectively, but the team could strike from anywhere. Sophomore Cameron Rast ’92-who went on to captain the 1992 U.S. Olympic team scored 11 goals as a defender, a total surpassed only once in the 20 years since.
But it was the focus and will that set his players apart, Sampson says. They would go to Lexington Reservoir in Los Gatos for sprints up the dam face, pushing each other so hard, that some of the players would retch before heading down to start again.
“I have never seen such commitment and character as what I saw that year,” Sampson says. Since that year, he’s gone on to head the Costa Rica and American U.S. World Cup teams, as well as coaching the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer.
The SCU team’s success fed upon itself. At the beginning of the season, crowds of hundreds came to see them play. As the unbeaten team marched to the playoffs, thousands of fans packed the stadiums. The buzz was that the SCU team was a champion in the making.
The team faced UCLA in quarter-finals and Indiana in the semifinals, a murderer’s row that would have made most first-time playoff team’s quake in their boots. But the lineup brought comfort to SCU’s debutantes. They had beaten both teams a year before. They could do it again.
The Broncos dispatched UCLA 2-0 on a rain-soaked home field that nullified the Bruin’s technical superiority. But against Indiana, the Broncos showed they could win with luck against them.
Within 20 minutes, the defending national champions were beating SCU 2-0, a death grip in most soccer matches. It was the first time all year the Broncos had faced a two-goal deficit. But Santa Clara stormed back with goals by Bravo, Rast, and senior Steve Robertson ’90.
“That was the game that showed the character and the heart and determination of the team,” said midfielder Paul Holocher ’91. He is now head coach of Cal Poly’s soccer team.
The Cold War
The comeback set up a final against the University of Virginia in Piscataway, N.J. It was a battle between two men establishing themselves as giants of American soccer: SCU’s Sampson and Virginia’s coach Bruce Arena. Both would go on to coach in the World Cup as well as in the MLS.
On that night in New Jersey, though, tactics took a backseat to staying upright. The teams struggled on a wind-swept field that felt like an ice rink, with arctic blasts taking temperatures to 10 below. “You were literally slipping on a block of ice,” Rast says.
Virginia struck first on a corner kick. With Tony Meola in goal, that was likely all the lead the Cavaliers would need to win. Meola was already the U.S. national team’s goalkeeper and he hadn’t let in a collegiate goal in more than six weeks.
But with minutes to go, Holocher swooped up the ball and found Baicher at the top of the penalty area. Baicher pushed his shot to the right side of the net. Meola skated helplessly on the icy turf. Goal! With the game tied, play continued in overtime. The teams froze for another hour on the turf, neither scoring. At the time, there was no provision to settle the lock with penalty kicks. The referee blew the final whistle: A tie it would be. SCU and Virginia were co-champions. The coaches were so cold they could barely talk.
It wasn’t the outright victory competitors crave. Both Sampson and Arena immediately blasted the outcome. But SCU’s players had a share of the national championship, the school’s first in any sport. And they could take pride in the fact that their peers thought they were the best. In both major polls of collegiate soccer, Santa Clara finished as No. 1. To this day, they remain the last unbeaten team in Division I soccer.
In Their Hands
For Santa Clara athletics, the legacy of the 1989 team goes further. Quite literally, Santa Clara soccer remains in the hands of the players from that era. Rast is head coach; goalkeeper Eric Yamamoto ’90 tutors the goalies; and Baicher, who played several years in the MLS, volunteers as an assistant coach.
The dominance of 1989 put Santa Clara on the soccer map and began an era that has seen the team return to the playoffs 14 times, the Final Four four times, and the finals twice. The success in the 20 years since-under Mitch Murray, Sampson’s assistant, and now under Rast himself, is directly tied to that foundation.
“We were able to set a standard that has lasted for 20 years,” Rast says.
For the players, even those who went onto play professionally, the game and the season remain one of the highlight of their lives.
“Call it national champion or co-champions, it doesn’t matter,” Bravo says. He is now technical director for the Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, where he set the team scoring record as a player. “To go through that experience with guys who had never experienced it before either, it was just so pure.”