MORAGA, Calif. -- Two seasons ago, after struggling to a 1-3-3 non-conference record, the Saint Mary's men's soccer team ended up as league champions and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, San Diego went 2-5 in non-league play and finished with the same result - WCC champions and winning three NCAA Tournament matches.
Saint Mary's head coach Adam Cooper hopes the rule of three is in effect this season and his team can go on a similar run as it begins West Coast Conference play this weekend against Pacific Northwest rivals Gonzaga and Portland.
The Gaels host Gonzaga Friday in a 4 p.m. match at Saint Mary's Stadium in the first league game of the season for both programs. Single game tickets, as well as group and team packages, are available by visiting the Tickets link on SMCGaels.com or by calling the SMC Athletic Ticket Office at (925) 631-GoTx (4689).
Gael Force members in attendance on Friday are encouraged to post photos from the game on Instagram using hashtag #GaelNation to have a chance to win prizes.
At Sunday's 2 p.m. kickoff against Portland, the men's soccer program will recognize its former players in attendance at halftime and youth can receive $1 admission by wearing their team jersey to the match. Junior Gaels members will receive free admission by wearing their club t-shirt or by showing their membership card.
Both games will feature live coverage on SMCGaels.com. A live video stream is available through subscription service Gaels Live, and a link to free live statistics will be live on matchday. There will also be updates on the @SMCGaels Twitter feed.
Saint Mary's enters Friday's match with a 2-4-2 overall record following Sunday's scoreless draw at San Jose State. The Gaels won their first two matches of the season, but are 0-4-2 since that time. Four of the last six matches for SMC have been on the road and two were against teams ranked among the top six in the national rankings (#5 Northwestern & #6 CSU Northridge).
"I think our first eight games definitely prepared us for conference play," said Cooper. "It is a new season. Once you get into conference play, anything can happen. Two years ago, we did not have a good non-conference record and we won the championship. The same thing happened to San Diego last year. They did not have a good non-conference record (2-5) and they won the league. And, both teams ended-up going to the NCAA Elite Eight."
"Non-conference doesn't tell you everything, but it does generally prepare you for conference play. That's what our non-conference schedule has done for our team."
Friday's match will mark the first WCC appearance for a number of Saint Mary's student-athletes. Of the 28 players on the roster, 12 have never played against a conference opponent. 21 are either freshmen or sophomores.
Redshirt freshman Carlo Eikani remains the team's goals leader. One of five Saint Mary's players to score this year, he found the back of the net twice onf the opening weekend of play and shares the total scoring lead with sophomore Jake Stenberg, who has a goal and two assists to his credit.
SMC has relied on two of its three goalkeepers so far this season. Junior Andre Rawls has six appearances this year and his 0.95 goals against average ranks sixth among WCC goalkeepers. He is also sixth in the league in save percentage (.800), fourth in total saves (24) and third in saves per game (4.00). Sophomore Lucas Champenois has played in two matches and earned his first career shutout in a scoreless draw against Sacramento State.
As a team, the Gaels lead the WCC in saves with 34 in eight matches, have forced the second-highest total corners (46) and are fourth in the league in goals against average.
Gonzaga enters Friday's match with a 5-2-0 record and the highest non-league winning percentage in the WCC. The Bulldogs opened the season with a 1-0 home loss to Washington then posted impressive road wins at UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly and UNLV. After stumbling at Illinois-Chicago, Gonzaga defeated Wisconsin and Seattle U. to conclude its non-WCC schedule.
"Gonzaga is having a great year so far and we'll need to be ready," said Cooper. "They are very experienced and, based on how their conference season went last year, I'm sure they are very motivated to prove everybody wrong right now. Friday is going to be a great way to start off conference, two teams that have something to prove."
Portland enters its 7 p.m. Friday night match at San Francisco with a 5-3 overall record with wins over UC Davis, Air Force, Seattle U., Oregon State and SMU. The Pilots dropped matches against Cleveland State and Denver.