Anteaters aiming still higher

Though George Kuntz and his wife Susan have two kids, the UC Irvine men's soccer program has also, for the last 15 years, been the veteran coach's baby.

Having made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances the last two seasons, Kuntz's Anteaters seem to have blossomed into a formidable force in their formative years.

And despite the loss of four of his top six scorers from last season — including All-American Irving Garcia, Big West Conference Tournament MVP Carlos Aguilar, and inspirational captain Kevin Santora — there are those who believe season 16 under Kuntz could be savory sweet.

"Our kids have big goals … huge goals," Kuntz said of his players, who have won two Big West Tournament titles and one regular-season crown the past two seasons, allowing themselves to perhaps ponder a more extended postseason run. "They've put so many years and so much time into it, they are saying 'Why not? Why can't it be us?' ''

The latter reference, Kuntz said, is a trip to the College Cup, the sport's final four which in 2010 will be held at UC Santa Barbara.

"I think they have aspirations to get to that point," Kuntz said. "Will they be able to? That remains to be seen. But I think we have the potential to get there."

That potential starts with senior forwards Amani Walker and Spencer Thompson, as well as junior goalkeeper Andrew Fontein and senior midfielder Gray Bailey and senior defender Corey Attaway.

Walker scored a team-best nine goals last season and added three assists on his way to first-team all-conference recognition. This despite starting only 12 of the 22 games in which he appeared.

Thompson, who started all 22 games in 2009, had seven goals and four assists. A second-team All-Big West performer last season, Thompson is a nominee for the Hermann Trophy awarded annually to the top player in Division I.

"They have been tremendous for us," Kuntz said of the strong, skilled duo, whose similar styles, Kuntz believes, make it less likely they will both be on the field at the same time. "They are both bulldozers out there, so, in that regard, it's almost better to play them with a quicker, smaller player."

Garcia, now with the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, was the definition of a diminutive dynamo in his two seasons at UCI. He had eight goals and nine assists last season to help the Anteaters finish 15-7. UCI was 30-9-6 with Garcia, a community college transfer, in uniform.

Kuntz said redshirt freshman Enrique Cardenas, who matched Walker for the most points on the team during the spring season, is one of several who could help fill the void left by Garcia's departure.

"We will miss a game-breaker in Irving, but we now probably have six game-breakers," Kuntz said.

In addition to Walker, Thompson and Cardenas, Kuntz said midfielders Miguel Ibarra, Jorge Reyes, Bello Alhassan and Danny Amaya figure to deliver excitement and productivity.

"Ibarra is different, but every bit as good as Irving," Kuntz said of the 5-foot-8 former Taft College All-American. "You might as well tape antlers to his head; he's that fast. He's a little bit different style than Irving, but he's that type of threat."

The 5-6 Alhassan, a native of Ghana, is a junior transfer from Arizona Western Community College, where he produced 16 goals and nine assists last season.

"People are going to see some uncanny things from [Alhassan]," Kuntz said.

Reyes, who had two assists in 17 games, including eight starts, is one of nine players who saw starting duty last season for UCI, which is ranked No. 20 in the College Soccer News preseason poll and was picked to finish second in the Big West, behind UCSB.

Amaya is a freshman who has already impressed Kuntz with his passing skills.

Attaway, who started all 22 games last season and Bailey, who started 12 times in an injury-shortened campaign, is a defensive midfielder who will help anchor the defense.

Junior Jimmy Turner and senior Joel Bagby, who started 15 and 10 games, respectively, last season, as well as sophomore Everett Pitts (10 starts as a freshman), return to solidify a back line that should also includes freshman Marco Franco.

Fontein, the MVP of the conference tournament in 2008, missed half the 2009 season with a strained knee. His return to the top of the depth chart prompted Victor Chinchilla, who started 11 games last season as a freshman, to leave the program in search of more playing time.

"[Fontein] has nerves of steel," Kuntz said. "He's fearless, can make the routine saves, and can also pull some rabbits out of his hat to make the magical saves. He has shown he can pull off a jaw-dropper."

Freshman Justin Tucker is the backup keeper, while junior forward Syd Tom, junior midfielder Christian Hernandez, and sophomore midfielder Zach Olow should also add depth.

Jonathan Prieto, who started 17 games as a freshman in '09, has left the program, said Kuntz, who believes UCI's recent success will inspire foes.

"We're going to get everybody's best game," Kuntz said. "Our guys know that. There's no question there is some pressure on us to be successful."

UCI, which visits Cal for a scrimmage Saturday, plays host to Gonzaga in the season opener Wednesday.

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