He never had a chance. UC Santa Barbara senior goalkeeper Dan Kennedy blanched as his defender's awkward clearance deflected off a Cal State-- Fullerton forward and dropped onto the foot of another Titans attacker, whose one-timer beat a sprawling Kennedy to the low left corner. After allowing just two goals (one a PK) in the Gauchos' first nine games, Kennedy had given up three in a 14minute span in the Oct. 6 game. An early 2-0 lead was gone, and now, as an ethereal fog enveloped UCSB's Harder Stadium pitch, its hopes for victory seemed ready to vanish.
To everyone, that is, except the team itself. "We never thought for a second we'd lose," Kennedy said the next morning, over a daring breakfast of Louisiana spicy sausage and Coke at a diner near the stunning UCSB campus, hard by the Pacific. "We've come too far as a program. This is a special team. With us, it's a matter of when, not if." He was right: The Gauchos tied the score at 3-all midway through the second half and won 4-3 on sophomore forward Tino Nunez's goal in double overtime.
So on rolls the party. Six years ago UCSB men's soccer was a lackluster program playing before indifferent fans; as recently as 1998 the team was 2-17-1. The following season the Gauchos hired Santa Barbara City College coach Tim Vom Steeg, who trolled the backwaters for J.C. transfers and internationals, building a squad he could mold into his ideal team: aggressive and attacking, with an angry edge borne of the program's woeful history.
That ideal has been realized: Early-season wins over national powers UConn, Seton Hall and Indiana put the Gauchos atop the polls, and though they suffered their first loss of the season last Saturday, falling 3-1 to Cal State-- Northridge, the prospect of the school's first national championship since a 1979 title in men's water polo remains real. "We found a group of players committed to growing this together," says Vom Steeg. "These guys were here when we got no respect. The 2001 class has been everything, and it began with Danny."
A star at El Dorado High in Southern California and on club teams, Kennedy considered area powers UCLA and San Diego but was put off by their demand that he redshirt. "The one place I was offered a chance to compete for playing time as a freshman was SB," Kennedy says. "At first I was like, UCSB? But something felt right."
A four-year starter, Kennedy has been a godsend for the ascendant Gauchos. He's a force in the box and nimble off his line. He's averaging 0.69 goals against, and his 28 shutouts is a school record. "He's the best keeper I've ever seen," says junior forward Jonathan Davis, a transfer from North Carolina. "He makes us go."
That's all the more remarkable considering Kennedy probably shouldn't even be alive. Last October, a car he was driving was struck head-on by a drunk driver, and rescue workers needed 90 minutes to cut Kennedy from the wreckage. Miraculously, he walked away. "It was unreal," he says. "They had to cut off my shoes--they were stuck to the floorboard." When he walked into the locker room the next day, swollen and shaken but ready to play, "you could feel how much of a team we were," he says. "There were tears. I get chills thinking about it."
Though Kennedy's height (he's generously listed at 6'1") might make pro teams wary--"If I were two inches taller, I wouldn't be playing college soccer right now," he says--he has drawn interest from MLS and Europe. Depending on the MLS draft results in January, Kennedy will go to Europe after the season (he's on pace to graduate in December with a communications degree) to train under old friend Jurgen Klinsman, coach of the German national team. "Once, a keeper from UCSB would've never had a chance to go to the next level," he says, beaming at his good fortune. "Because of my teammates, now I hope to. And that's all I want. Just one chance."