Fontein keeps believing

Andrew Fontein is close to earning a degree in business economics at UC Irvine. But it is on the soccer field where he has learned best the lessons regarding a return on one's investment.

The Las Vegas native was hardly a commodity when he came to UCI as a freshman walk-on, having secured a Big West home as a backup plan after enrolling at Villanova fell through.

But blessed with a confidence that knows no conscience, he trusted that talent and determination would help him shovel out from under his subterranian status on the depth chart.

"He was going to go someplace else," UCI Coach George Kuntz recalled. "But when he decided to come here, I told him we already have four keepers and he'd be the fifth. I told him he was probably going to redshirt."

It didn't take long for Fontein to adjust that scenario.

"He came in and started beating out three other guys to become our No. 2 guy in the preseason," Kuntz said. "Before long, our No. 1 guy gets hurt. He steps in, earns a scholarship and, from that point on, he has had an amazing career."

Indeed, Fontein and unprecedented success at UCI may rival the age-old conundrum about the chicken and the egg.

In four seasons, Fontein has helped the Anteaters make the program's first three appearances in the NCAA Tournament, including this season when they will play host to a second-round match on Sunday at 6 p.m.

Fontein has also been in goal for Big West Tournament title-game victories in 2008, 2009 and 2011 and he helped the program win conference regular-season titles in 2008 and 2011. He owns school career records for wins (50) and shutouts (29) and school single-season marks for wins (16 this season), goals-against average (0.59 in 2010) and shutouts (11 in 2010).

This season's Big West Goalkeeper of the Year, he was the Big West Tournament MVP as a freshman, when he made several freshman All-American teams. In addition to his first-team all-conference recognition this season, he was twice a second-team all-conference choice and he shared Big West Freshman of the Year honors in 2008, when the team made its only trip to the NCAA Sweet 16.

"He has won so many things for this program, and that all speaks to his consistency, which is what you want out of a goalkeeper," Kuntz said. "I challenge anyone to find a better goalkeeper in the West."

Fontein would not shy away from agreeing with his coach, but anyone who knows the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder would never mistake self-assuredness for a boundless ego.

"Drew always had confidence in himself," said senior captain and midfielder Jimmy Turner, who has also been central to the team's recent windfall. "He always believed that he could be a performer and he could be that starting goalkeeper. Drew has one of the highest work rates of any goalkeeper that I've ever been around. He always pushes the envelope in training and he always wants to get better."

Getting better in goal began before kindergarten for Fontein, who said he dived into soccer at age 3.

"I was the tallest kid on the team back then, so I was chosen to play goalkeeper," Fontein said. "We had a coach who was really competitive. He used to tell me I needed to dive, and he would literally grab me by my belt from behind and throw me from side to side when kids would shoot at me in practice."

Soon, Fontein needed no such impetus, and it is his lateral quickness, as well as his undaunted courage in the face of potential peril, that has made him not only effective but emminently entertaining in goal.

"Andrew is very quick off his line and he reads the game extremely well," Turner said.

"It's all about aggressiveness," said Fontein, who doesn't flinch over collisions in the box, as long as he can get a piece, or possession of the ball. "I'm always ready to step forward, becaue you have to be willing to move off your line and pounce. They say the best defense is a good offense and it's the same thing with a goalie. You've got to be willing to cover ground to get to the ball. When you come out strong, you don't get hurt as much. I have definitely hurt people more times than I've been hurt myself. Whoever goes in harder is usually the one who comes out on top."

Fontein is similarly relentless about his preparation.

"It's business, all business," Fontein said of a game he hopes will soon become his profession. "I know I'm going to get out only as much as I put in, mentally and physically. Why would I expect to be the best if I don't practice the hardest? I practice hard, I practice a lot and I practice efficiently. So, deep down, I am not surprised when things go well. If I do something well, I want to do even better. When you get the taste of winning, you want to keep winning. If I beat a record, I want to smash that record."

Fontein said he also relishes the big moment. Most things people consider pressure, he interprets as fuel.

"I love playing on the road," he said. "I love to play soccer and I love playing in front of people anywhere. It's like, OK, let's put on a show. Playing soccer is how I express myself, all my emotions. If I couldn't continue to play, I would feel like a big piece of me was missing."

Fontein, whose mother was born in Italy and whose father was born in Holland, said he would love to play professionally abroad. But for now, he is savoring his chance to add even more achievement to an admirable career.

"I remember my freshman year, I would look at the scoreboard with 30 mintutes left and think, 'OK, I have to shut out these guys for 30 more minutes,'" Fontein said. "Now, when I see there are 30 minutes left, I tell myself I want to enjoy those 30 minutes. I say 'Let's do this. I want to be in crunch time and I want someone to get a breakaway to test me. I'm not thinking about messing up. I feel like if I get tested, I'm going to do something good."

barry.faulkner@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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