The dog days of summer have set in, but don't tell that to the UC Davis men's soccer team, which has spent the past week battling through heat and the competition of double days in preparation for this weekend's exhibition opener against Chico State at the Aggie Soccer Field on Sunday evening (Aug. 21) at 5 p.m.
If you talk to Head Coach Dwayne Shaffer about this year's edition of Aggie men's soccer, you can't help but notice a smile creep across his face at the prospects for the upcoming campaign.
"As a collective group, we are way more experienced at the start of a season than we have ever been," Shaffer said. "The competition within the team is the strongest as it's ever been and we've got two full teams of 11 that could probably start on any given day."
Coming off a season that saw the Aggies reach the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament and finish 8-10-3 overall (3-4-3 in league play), UC Davis was picked to finish third in the league's North Division as Shaffer, now in his 20th season at the helm of the program, returns six starters and 17 letter winners overall as part of one of the deepest and most experienced teams he has ever had in his tenure.
Despite losing three of its top four scorers from a season ago that accounted for nearly half of the team's scoring output, the Aggies' roster brings back all but seven players from 2015, including 11 of the team's 14 goal scorers, leading to a number of opportunities to step into the breach offensively for UC Davis, which finished tied for third in a stingy Big West with 29 goals scored a season ago.
"Our group of attackers aren't freshmen anymore, and I have been very impressed with their development and growth going into the regular season," Shaffer said.
Helping lead the way for the returning group, a pair of fifth-year seniors in defender Dashiell MacNamara and goalkeeper Armando Quezada, who have been through their fair share of double days since signing on with the Aggies prior to the 2012 campaign -- a season that saw UC Davis tie Big West Conference rival CSUN for the best record in the league en route to a clash in the tournament championship match.
The duo sat down following one of their morning training sessions to talk with us about the last five years, what they have learned during their time as Aggies, and how they have helped carry on the traditions of a proud UC Davis men's soccer program.
Q: Anybody call you "grandpa" yet?
Armando Quezada: "I feel like one (laughs). It's so much different now because, as a senior, you deal with almost more stuff off the field. When it comes to on the field stuff, it's obvious, you know how everything works, the systems of play… but more responsibility off the field falls on us trying to help the new guys get into the team."
Dashiell MacNamara: "For me, when I got here as a freshman, some of my best friends on the team were already seniors, so I remember pretty much just hanging out with them and I felt like a fifth-year THEN. So now, it's really nothing new. It's all kind of compounded. I feel like I've been a fifth-year senior for the last three years."
Q: Has it hit you yet that you're taking the field for, what could be the last time? If it hasn't, when do you think it will… if ever?
DM: "It's hit me. I'm excited. I've had fun every year that I've been here and I can't wait to see what comes next. I don't think that any game this season, for me, will be more important than any other this season or the one before that."
AQ: "Maybe it's hit me more off the field than on it. You've got family members knowing it's your last year, you've got more people coming to games, my mom's already booked flights for everyone (laughs)… maybe, in that aspect, it has made me realize that this season is special. When I get on the field, though, I have not let that enter my mind and I probably won't. Right now, my focus right now is on our first game. Every game is important. You can't think, 'oh, this is my last game, therefore it's important,' otherwise you lose that focus and what you need to win that game."
Q: What do you think you've learned during your time at UC Davis? What's one thing that's stuck with you from when you came in as a freshman to this point in your career?
DM: "In terms of just getting through practice and getting through training… I always kinda thought I was a good player but, maybe, I didn't train as hard as I do know. Coach Shaffer, Coach (Jason) Hotaling, and Coach (Chris) Leer, are really good at making you mentally tougher, helping you push through the pain, and doing what it takes to make you a better player on a daily basis."
AQ: "I agree. That's probably the biggest thing. Coming in as a freshman, playing at the high school and club levels, maybe you get away with just having the physical abilities and talent. Now, once you get to college, EVERYBODY is good at this this level. Now you're going through training more on that mental aspect, more preparation and knowing what's going to happen in a game, rather than 'let's just work hard today.' "
Q: Do you relish the role of taking guys under your wing and preparing them for what they are about to experience at the Division I level?
DM: "Yeah, after a couple years of doing it, I think I'm comfortable in that role."
AQ: "For me, I think we were fortunate enough, when we were true freshmen, we had three guys who, in our eyes, were legendary in Mustafa Chopan, Ethan Shawlee, and John Joslin… they each had their own special qualities that made them great leaders. That's what I want to leave with this team… not necessarily specifically what 'I' leave for them, but something they can pick up from part of me that they can make their own."
Q: Is there something that you know now that you wish you could go back and tell yourself five years ago?
DM: "I don't know. I kind of enjoyed the journey of learning it all. I don't know if I'd want to 'cheat' my way through it. Part of the joy is finding those things out for yourself. I think another thing that helped was our class was so tight-knit, we were all really good friends and we could bond with each other."
AQ: "I agree. It's a process. Looking back, I think we were always very aware of what was going on, we knew our roles, especially as freshmen… I think our class knew what part we had to play. The road trips were eye-opening, we weren't playing, we were just watching and absorbing. That helps a lot."
What goals have you guys set for this season?
DM: "I want to win the Big West. Every year that I've been here, we've made the conference tournament, my freshman year, we made it to the championship match and lost, and it seems like it always comes down to who's playing their best in the last three games. I have no doubts that we will make it, but can we win those last three games. I think, last year, we were really young, and having to go down and play UC Santa Barbara at their place was difficult, but I think, if we do that again this year, we'll be ready for it."
AQ: "For me, getting off to a good start at the beginning of the season is so important because it sets the tone for the entire year. I want UC Davis soccer to be on the map. I want us to have one of the best seasons this program has had in a long time and we've got to build good habits and get off to a strong start to do that. I want us to be a dominant team. I want UC Davis to be known nationwide. I want us to make some noise this season."
Q: The word "legacy" is a strong word in some circles. What do you hope your "legacy" will be? What do you hope people will say about the teams that you were on?
DM: "I hope people are honest. I don't want people to sugar coat anything. I want them to say that we worked hard, prepared hard, did everything we could at practice and in the games to win. Say we did really well this season, I would want the players on the team five years from now to have the mentality that, 'yeah, they were really good, but we can do better. It's our time now.' "
AQ: "I've never been one who has played to be remembered. I want to leave this program in good shape. Win games. Win titles. Take this team to the NCAA Tournament. I don't want to leave a legacy, that doesn't bring any joy to me. What brings me joy is enjoying THIS moment, THIS season with these seniors, looking one another in the eye and knowing that no one can take this away from us."