UCLA men’s soccer practice had been over for nearly half an hour, yet four players were still on the field long after their teammates and coaches had left, launching shot after shot toward the goal.
Those extra kicks were aiming for a higher goal than the one on the field, though. After a successful nonconference portion of the season, UCLA begins Pac-12 conference play this weekend with the goal of repeating as conference champion.
Junior forward Reed Williams, one of the four players who stayed behind, didn’t log additional practice time due to lack of confidence.
“I think we’re expecting to win every game like we did last year, and we won’t settle with a tie or any losses,” Williams said.
No. 9 UCLA will attempt to achieve those lofty ambitions as they face Stanford (3-4-0) and California (5-2-1) this weekend. But the Bruins aren’t the only ones setting these high expectations. Pac-12 coaches voted UCLA (5-1-2) as the favorite to win the conference, which would mark their fourth title in the past five years.
“I think that is a testament to what we did last year, going 10-0, and I think people know that we’ve had a strong schedule, and we’ve done well in our first couple of games.” said senior forward/midfielder Evan Raynr. “I think they believe, rightly so, that we’re a strong team.”
Yet with such history of success, the Bruins are wary of being overconfident.
“We have confidence that we can do the job, but we know that it’s not going to be easy, and we know that we’re going to have to show up and do our best,” Raynr said.
While Stanford and Cal have not been particularly impressive this season, UCLA knows not to overlook them, as conference play gives the teams an opportunity to redeem themselves.
“You get to almost start over again if you haven’t had a good non-conference portion of your season. You look at a team like Stanford that’s had some mixed results. It starts all over for them on Friday,” coach Jorge Salcedo said.
“Where we want to keep things going, they want to start anew and build from their conference play and hopefully have a good conference season.”
Stanford may be looking for a fresh start, but Cal, which hasn’t faced many tough teams, is hoping its decent start will continue against stiffer competition.
After a dismal performance in conference play last year as it went winless against Pac-12 opponents last season, the team is hoping things will be different this time around. And despite the Golden Bears’ recent struggles, the Bruins know better than to look past their rivals to the north.
“The two games we played against them (last year) were both close games. They took us to overtime at home and we won 2-0 away, but it was even closer than the score (indicated),” Williams said.
“We know every team is going to give us their best effort so we have to match that.”