Paul Holocher simply said the timing was right.
Cal Poly athletic director Don Oberhelman agreed.
For the Mustangs men’s soccer players left to survive the fallout, however, the timing of watching your eight-year head coach resign a couple days before the start of training camp seemed anything but ideal.
Holocher’s quick preseason exit last month did help achieve one thing. The shared experience brought the players together unlike they’d ever been before, and the production on the field, early on at least, seems to indicate that little has changed with the high-scoring Mustangs.
“I think this training camp, we came really close as a team,” junior midfielder Chase Minter said. “That was the emphasis, and I’m seeing the result of that. It feels like this team is more of a family than we’ve probably ever had.
“We’re gelling together. We’re understanding that we’re all in this together.”
Before losing Holocher, Cal Poly was already entering a season looking to replace the production of the top scorer in program history; Mackenzie Pridham, who had 14 goals last season and 27 for his career.
Last season, the Mustangs were seventh in the country with 43 goals, another program record. That averaged out to 2.05 per match in a 10-9-2 season.
Two matches into 2014, Cal Poly has only quickened that scoring pace — even without Pridham and Holocher, who had worked hard to institute an attacking, possession style over the past few seasons.
The Mustangs scored well in a 4-3 loss to Davidson and a 3-1 win over North Carolina State. Minter has three goals, and three others have one apiece heading into Friday’s 7 p.m. home-opener against Northern Illinois.
Another thing that helped bring the team together, Minter said, was immediate reassurance from interim head coach Phil Ruskin, a first-time head coach entering just his second season with the program, that nothing was going to change as far as the style of play is concerned.
“I don’t think the focus has changed too much,” junior midfielder Matt LaGrassa said. “We’ve got our style of play, and we’re obviously trying to master that style and play it to the best of our ability and games.”
That style is one Holocher brought with him after spending multiple offseasons observing the training rituals of FC Barcelona, and it remains even if the architect and it’s most successful scorer have departed.
“I’d say we’ll probably be even more dangerous year,” Minter said, “because this we’re not going to have a (Pridham) who is up top and is our go-to-guy. We have a lot of guys that are taking more responsibility with the goal load.
“One of the biggest things that comes with that, we’re not leaving it up to one guy to be the goal-scorer or the assist-maker or defensive role. We have a lot of leaders who are stepping up. In training you have six or seven guys, because everyone’s looking and hungry.”
The cupboard was far from bare. LaGrassa was the Mustangs’ second-leading scorer with six goals last season. Minter had a team-leading seven assists. After getting five goals and four assists in a standout freshman season, Ari Lassiter went pro overseas, but sophomore Justin Dhillon returns looking for a breakout season after he scored the opening goal in a 1-1 draw with UC Santa Barbara at Alex G. Spanos Stadium last season. Junior goalkeeper Wade Hamilton is also back after playing every minute of all 21 games last season.
Questions remain on how the soccer program will move on without Holocher, who took over a slumping program at Cal Poly and turned it into a campus-wide phenomenon.
Whereas UC Santa Barbara dominated a one-sided matchup with the Mustangs for years, Holocher ushered the Blue-Green rivalry into an era where it’s now touted as the top rivalry in college soccer.
A 2008 sellout of 11,075 against the visiting Gauchos at Spanos Stadium was once the third-largest regular-season college soccer crowd in NCAA history.
Dramatic home victories over UC Santa Barbara in 2010, 2011 and 2012 saw capacity crowds storm field after each game.
Because of those environments alone, it’s not uncommon to hear students refer to Cal Poly as a “soccer school.”
None of the above was happening before Holocher arrived.
“The guys are really grateful for what Paul did,” LaGrassa said. “He did a lot of work to build the program into what it is. It’s nice having that support from the community and from the school. So, we’re hoping to keep that going, and I’m sure we will.”
Ruskin has demanded continued community outreach in his short time in charge. Players were seen handing out promotional materials at Farmer’s Market in Downtown San Luis Obispo last month.
The players have continued holding youth clinics at elementary and middle schools. Recent events were held at a local YMCA and at Emerson Park.
Where Ruskin sees the successes against the Gauchos, he also sees room for improvement. He’d like to see attendance rise for every game, and to do that, he proposes a tighter bond with people off-campus.
“One of the things is the development of fan support at non-Santa Barbara games,” Ruskin said. “We really want have a crowd of 6,000-to-8,000 for UC Davis. What’s it going to take to get the same support for UC Davis on Wednesday that it is for UC Santa Barbara on a Friday night?
“To be quite honest, I think the players appreciate the fan support from the students, but they also appreciate it from the community. We want to appreciate the students, and we also want the community.”