After both the Cal Poly men’s and women’s soccer programs suffered subpar seasons last year, the head coach of each team decided it was time for a change in culture.
For men’s coach Paul Holocher, it meant breaking out his passport for some immersion overseas. For women’s coach Alex Crozier, it was about getting back in touch with the attitude he’s tried to foster over the past 20 years.
Both are hoping that a shift in focus, along with concurrent youth movements, will get the programs back on track for years to come. They host an exhibition doubleheader at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday when the women play USC at 1 p.m. and the men host San Francisco at 7.
The men — selected to finish third in the Big West Conference Northern Division on Thursday — will unveil a new ball-handling style patterned after FC Barcelona, which Holocher spent 10 days observing first hand in December.
A longtime admirer of the Spanish possession style of play, Holocher has been trying to bring it to Cal Poly for years. The effort these past two seasons has instead created a defense-oriented squad that put up the best defensive statistics in program history but scored just 15 goals in 18 games.
One-third of those goals came in a single match, and the Mustangs finished 6-9-3 (3-6-1 Big West) in 2011 as Cal Poly didn’t much resemble the World Cup-winning Spaniards.
Now that Holocher has soaked up Barcelona’s training rituals from the youth programs all the way up to the first team, he’s dedicated to remaking Cal Poly in the image of the sport’s leading country in the world.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I knew how I wanted to play. I knew how I wanted to develop players,” Holocher said, “but I felt like I didn’t really have the roadmap. Going to Spain was the roadmap. I had concrete exercises and methodology that we could bring back here.
“It completely opened my eyes to a new way of developing teams and developing players. For me, it was a life-changing experience.”The Mustangs women have had a proven recipe for success.
Cal Poly has won seven Big West Conference championships under Crozier in the past two decades, but the Mustangs failed to live up to that reputation en route to a middling record (9-9-1 overall, 3-5 Big West) in 2011.
Crozier said there was an air of complacency that had to be addressed. This past offseason was intended to resurrect the championship prowess by rebuilding a championship work ethic.
“The last two years we’ve finished about .500 and I think it was putting the cart before the horse a little bit, expecting things to happen,” Crozier said. “We had talent, but it just didn’t happen when push came to shove.
“There were players that maybe were just satisfied with being a part of the program and happy to be part of the team. The goal in the offseason was to just cut out all the fluff. Let’s just show up and get all the work done.”
Sophomore Sara Lancaster (eight goals in 2011), junior Cristina Farrington (four goals) and senior Cici Kobinski (two goals) figure to be the team’s top attacking players.
Senior midfielder Julie McKee and senior defender Shandon Rovetta are also expected to play key roles, but Crozier is also prepared to employ several freshmen right away.
Crozier compares true freshman centerback Robin Mertens (Albany High) with Rovetta, praising her intelligence and maturity. He is also high on true freshman forward Elise Krieghoff (Buchanan High), who scored 35 goals and added 16 assists in one of her high school seasons.
“Elise is a powerful, skilled, strong forward,” Crozier said. “She’s a goal scorer. We paired her with Sara Lancaster and Cici.”Goal-scoring is exactly what the men could use since the team can’t expect to be as defensively dominant after their offseason graduations.
All-Big West defenders Wes Feigner, Patrick Sigler and Cameron Walters are gone. So is goalkeeper Patrick McLain.
The only experienced returner is junior Connor Drechsler, who has started every match each of the past two seasons.
Drechsler said the Mustangs will maintain its pride in defensive excellence, especially with enthusiastic assistant Brian Reed guiding the defense. Drechsler himself must be a coach on the field, grooming the new starters that will join him on the back line the way Feigner, Sigler and Walters did before him.
“I’m trying to do what they did for me and show them the way as all the other guys did,” Drechsler said. “We’re going to be young, but you’re going to see a hard-working team that is going to move the ball around nicely.”
With the defense rebuilding, Holocher is shifting his faith to the rest of the field, where he is asking the Mustangs to play a refined form of keep-away, while methodically advancing the ball down the field.
“It’s a lot more fun,” junior George Malki said. “It’s not like we didn’t go forward last year, but we really weren’t as much of an attacking team as we wanted to be.
“This year we’re going to be known for our ball movements and out-possessing teams, and just keeping the ball is going to be frustrating for the other team.”