By ADAM SERRANO
From injuries to transferring between schools to dark nights away from the game that he loves, one goal has kept Sam Garza from the brink.
His dream of representing the United States in a major international competition.
On the cusp of making the U.S. U-20 World Cup squad in 2009, Garza suffered a devastating ACL injury that prevented him from appearing in the tournament and cost him the 2009 season. The forward responded by transferring from the University of Denver to UC Santa Barbara this season. Overcoming his injury, the sophomore forward is the Gauchos' leader in goals (nine) and points (21) in his first season in Santa Barbara.
By scoring a goal in UCSB's nationally televised victory over Duke, and one week later recording a hat trick against Cal State Northridge, Garza signaled his return to prominence. As Garza rebounds from his lost season, there has been no better place than the confines of Santa Barbara to complete his comeback.
"The [injury] was the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and being away from the game for six or seven months brought dark times," said Garza. "I was really unfortunate not to go to the [U-20] World Cup, because if I had a good tournament then who knows what could have happened, but I feel blessed to have ended up on a team like Santa Barbara."
During his time with UCSB, one of the primary issues for Garza has been transitioning to a new style of play while also recovering from injury. Garza endured an extremely difficult nine months away from the field as he sought to get back to the level to which he had become accustomed. With little contact from his U.S. youth coach, Garza turned to his trusted high school coach, who helped him get over missing the World Cup.
Despite all the support from those around him, it would be up to Garza to put in the hard work, waking up a 5 a.m each day for his rehab. Primarily a player who uses his speed to blow past defenders, Garza had to work to rebuild the pace that was a major part of his game. He then sought a change of scenery at UCSB, which initially was a move that members of his family opposed. At UCSB, Garza has found an enviornment surrounded by top players that can get him back to his level.
"My next goal is to get with the Olympic team, but I didn't know if I would be able to make it to that point, then I moved to Santa Barbara," Garza said. "At first, I didn't know how I would fit into the team and I was pretty skeptical, but once I got here and met the guys on the team, it was an instant connection and I feel like I got everything back that I lost."
Garza has been the beneficiary of a strong midfield core at UCSB with juniors Danny Barrera and Luis Silva playing the distribution role for the Gauchos. A pair of attacking midfielders, the pair have formed a strong bond with Garza assisting numerous times on the forward's goals. Head coach Tim Vom Stegg admits that there is a learning curve for Garza, but he has familiarized himself well as of late.
"The story of the season for him so far has been that he is healthy in terms of his knee, but his sharpness especially in front of net has been off." Vom Steeg said. "However, over the past few weeks he's paralleled the success of our team and has regained his sharpness by scoring goals and subsequently, we've begun winning."
Garza's ascension over the last few weeks has coincided with UCSB's return to prominence after a dip in form in midseason that saw the Gauchos fall out of nearly every ranking list. The play of the forward has been one of the major catalysts that saw the Gauchos earn a No.19 spot in NSCAA's rankings this week.
The Gauchos take on their arch-rival Cal Poly Wednesday night (11 p.m., FSC) before facing No.7 UC Irvine on Saturday. As Garza looks to build on his strong season, he admits that there has been no contact from US Soccer, but his dream is still going. After a tumultuous start to the season and with the NCAA tournament in sight, Garza has not lost sight of his overall goal: Once again wearing the U.S. shield over his heart.
"Before every game during the national anthem, I think to myself that I want to represent my country so badly, and it's my ultimate goal this year to make that Olympic team," Garza said. "During the anthem, I just think that I need to be dangerous player. It is giving the passion to play that much harder, just thinking about reaching that goal of making the U-23 team. Playing here at UCSB is definitely going to help me get back on top."