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A Mite Too Much : Occidental’s Caba Has Found Niche in Soccer, Basketball

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Jay Caba did not expect college soccer players to be the kind of guys who rose at the crack of noon, sported mohawks and beer guts, and jabbered about how they hadn’t run a lick since last season.

But when he arrived at the Occidental College soccer camp the summer before his freshman year, that’s exactly what he found. Practice was poorly structured and was held on the school’s baseball diamond.

Disappointed and disillusioned, Caba left the first practice early and headed for the Occidental gym. A good game of pickup basketball, his second favorite sport, would be his solace.

To Caba’s chagrin, however, the guys in the gym made the soccer crowd look like fitness gurus.

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“I was playing against a bunch of dorks in black socks,” Caba said. “I’m thinking, ‘This is a nightmare.’ I thought I was fading into athletic oblivion.”

He was far off the mark.

A new coach and new field have since rejuvenated the soccer program. And last season, Caba, now a junior, was the most valuable player on a team that established Occidental’s best Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference finish (8-4) and was 9-8-2 overall. According to Coach Lowell Thomas, that marked only the second time Occidental has posted a winning record since it established a soccer program in 1954.

Last week, Caba was selected as a Division III soccer All-American and was named to the All-Far West Conference team.

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But he is also the seventh man on the Tiger basketball team, which boasts a 10-3 record, the best nonconference mark in the SCIAC.

Though Caba stands just 5 feet, 8 inches, he burns opponents with his quickness and strength in both sports.

“He’s like one big muscle,” basketball Coach Brian Newhall said. “He kind of bounces around. He had a tantrum when I gave him medium shorts. He’s got those soccer thighs.”

In the fall, Caba relied on those soccer thighs to prowl the midfield, blaze by defenders, boot goals and fire passes with the accuracy of Wayne Gretzky.

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Thomas says Caba’s command of the game and ability to direct traffic on the pitch was a deciding factor in many of last season’s wins.

Few times were Caba’s leadership capabilities more apparent than in a match against Claremont, a team which has won or shared the conference title each of the last 13 years and one which the Tigers had not beaten since 1976.

Occidental forward Aran Aleamoni broke a scoreless tie and won the match by scoring with 4 minutes to play. Though Caba did not notch an assist, Thomas says it was his control of the midfield which allowed the Tigers to go on the offensive.

“It was the way he performed on the field, to be able to see the openings and hit the open man that said to the team that we were going to win no matter what,” he said.

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And Caba seems equally poised to deflect praise as he is to deflect an opponent’s shot.

“It was weird because, except for me, no one got recognition,” he said. “It’s frustrating when the other guys contribute as much as they did and one guy gets all the recognition. It was really unfair.”

Friends nicknamed Caba, who was raised in Gladstone, Ore., “Boo Boo,” after Yogi Bear’s little buddy. But his shoulder-shrugging, unassuming attitude has at times proved frustrating for coaches. In fact, his prowess on the basketball court went largely unnoticed for much of his freshman year.

During that first year, Caba and Dan Nugent worked as the team cameramen, videotaping the Tigers’ games. Now, both are performing on the other side of the camera.

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Newhall, then the JV coach, says the two would hang out before practice, play pickup games and “just use our JV guys.”

Assistant Jim Kerman, who now coaches the JV team, first noticed Caba in an intramural league. “I was flabbergasted,” Kerman said. “Here’s this little kid running circles around seasoned ballplayers.”

Because it would be unfair to the other players to allow Caba to join the team in midseason, he began playing JV basketball his sophomore year. Though he spent most of his time running the JV point, he did suit up for a few varsity games. But he hastens to add that his varsity highlight film would consist of 2 missed free throws.

Now, Caba averages 13 minutes a game and Newhall says that had starting point guard Ethan Caldwell not transferred from Pomona, Caba would be a starter.

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Still, Caba concedes his game is not complete. He plans to take more shots in coming weeks but admits he gets a little spooked by the tall timber in the key.

“When I don’t look for my shot, it gets me in trouble,” he said. “But it’s getting to the point where every time I go inside there’s somebody waiting to send my shot into the bleachers.”

Kerman says Caba will have to gain confidence to bolster his 2.7-point scoring average.

But it is doubtful that increased scoring will change Caba’s modest approach.

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Commented one soccer teammate: “He’s just like everybody’s little brother.”


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