Men's head soccer coach Vincent Martinez looks out at Benson Stadium.

By Andrew Festa

UIW in the NCAA 2011 Soccer Championships

The University of the Incarnate Word Men’s Soccer Team hosted the first round of the NCAA Division II 2011 Soccer Championship game at Benson Stadium Thursday, Nov. 10. The team emerged with a 1-0 victory over Midwestern State, UIW’s biggest in-region rival.

The men’s soccer team then traveled to Durango, Colo. for the second round of the tournament to take on Fort Lewis College Sunday, Nov. 13. The Cardinals lost 1-0 when Fort Lewis scored the game’s only goal with just six minutes left to play on a rebound shot in close against UIW’s goalkeeper who made a great save just moments before. Fort Lewis went on to win the National Championship.

UIW ended the season with a final record of 14-3-3.

The departure of a coach has the power to weaken even the most talented team and shut a window of opportunity before players can regain their rhythm under a new leader.

The University of the Incarnate Word Men’s Soccer Team has proven to be in capable hands under the newly appointed men’s head soccer coach Vincent Martinez, and UIW’s impressive performance in his first season is evidence.

As assistant coach from 2008-2010, Martinez helped former head Coach John Smith assemble a gifted group of athletes. So when Smith resigned this summer, Martinez was a natural replacement. The players didn’t flinch, eventually achieving the program’s highest national ranking since 2004.

“The team loved Coach Smith, but since I have stepped in, they have rallied around me,” Martinez said. “I have been very happy with the team’s focus, and their attitudes in training. Their approach has been very professional.”

With 10 seniors returning after a 13-2-3 season, drastic changes weren’t necessary.

Martinez earned his coaching stripes at Las Positas College in Livermore, Calif., where he served as assistant coach for the women’s team and co-head coach for the men between 1995 and 2005. He played collegiately for Fresno State and professionally for the Monterey Bay Jaguars, Nashville Metros and Hershey Wildcats.

“I like him very much because he used to be a defender as well,” said senior defender Edward Estrada. “So he sees what I see on the field, and I understand exactly what he says whenever he explains things to me.”

It makes a new coach’s job easier when his players are already motivated.

“UIW was the only top 25 team to miss the playoffs last year,” Martinez said. “This left the Cardinals hungry to reach the postseason, win the Lone Star Conference and more.”

“We are all here working very hard, and we all have one thing on our mind, which is a national championship,” Estrada said.

So losing the season opener 2-1 to then-ninth-ranked Colorado School of Mines was a wake-up call.

“I think the team realized that not everything is going to come easy for us and we have to work hard for it,” Martinez said. “It was a game we should have won and we outplayed them, but that’s the way it happens in soccer. I think it made us stronger.”

The Cardinals responded by rattling off six consecutive victories and shooting into the top 5 of the national Division II poll. One remarkable victory came Sept. 16 against then-No. 3 Midwestern State at Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium. Senior Max Gunderson scored the game’s lone goal, sending UIW from unranked nationally to No. 8 at the time and putting them atop the NCAA Division II South Central Region.

“Everyone has bonded,” Estrada said. “In the huddle we always say, ‘one team, one family,’ and we work for each other. We have everyone’s back on or off the field.”

A big reason for the surge was senior midfielder Callum Riley, who led the Lone Star Conference (LSC) with 17 goals and 38 points in 2010 and was named “LSC Offensive Player of the Year.” The Leicester, England, native earned a hat trick in a 4-2 victory over No. 19 Texas A&M International on Sept. 23.

Costa Rica native Carlos Picado also notched a three-goal game, in a 3-2 win over St. Edward’s University on Sept. 7.

The UIW men’s soccer team roster brims with talent from around the world. In addition to Riley and Picado, four other Cardinals come from England and one from Toronto.

“Our recruiting boundaries are not just in the state of Texas, they are all over the place,” Martinez said. “I think it is always good to have a mix of different backgrounds. Not only is college soccer the experience on the field, but it is good for the guys to learn from other backgrounds as well.”

Incarnate Word’s sterling reputation and the program’s winning tradition make it easy to bring in recruits, Martinez said.

“They are going to be playing on a good team, they are going to get a good education, they are in a good environment, and they have good facilities. Once recruits get here to visit, I do not really have to be the salesman too much, it sells itself.”