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An L.A. Story
Grant Wahl
December 22, 1997
A skateboarder and a keeper with yellow toenails led UCLA to the NCAA title
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December 22, 1997

An L.a. Story

A skateboarder and a keeper with yellow toenails led UCLA to the NCAA title

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Last Saturday night, on the eve of the NCAA men's soccer final, UCLA senior goalkeeper Matt Reis grappled with some weighty questions in his Richmond hotel room. Should he paint his toenails yellow? Or should he keep them blue? Then again, what about the more radical suggestion of his girlfriend, Nicole Odom, who would be the one to apply the polish? "She wanted me to switch colors on every other toenail, but I like to have just one solid color," Reis explained later. "So after I wore blue for the semifinal, we changed it to yellow for the final."

As Made in California as that sounds, it was hardly the most far-out tale that emerged from the UCLA Confidential file at the Final Four. Take the story told by Bruins junior forward Seth George, a self-described skateboard junkie. A year ago, after finishing his final exams, George couldn't find a lift home. Although a steady rain was falling, he decided to ride his board from Westwood to Mission Viejo, Calif., a 70-mile trip. "My mom was pissed," said George, "but it was an awesome ride."

Totally. Anyway, now that you've met a couple of these Valley Boys, perhaps it's easier to appreciate their team's talent for surprises. On Sunday, UCLA pulled off another one at University of Richmond Stadium, defeating favored Virginia 2-0 for its third national championship.

Leading the way for the Bruins were—who else?—the skate punk and the toenail artiste, former teammates at Santa Margarita High in Mission Viejo. George, the NCAA tournament's most outstanding offensive player, scored both of UCLA's goals, in the final 12 minutes, but Reis (pronounced REESE) was clearly the man of the match. The most outstanding defensive player, he kept the game scoreless during the first half with leaping saves on two point-blank shots by forward Brian West and a diving stop on a try by forward Chris Albright. Then, in the 52nd minute, Reis charged outside the penalty box and dived yellow-toenails-first to deny midfielder Jason Moore on a breakaway. "We had some great chances," said Virginia coach George Gelnovatch, "but it was like a wall back there."

Indeed, the Bruins have acquired a reputation for producing some of the nation's best goalkeepers. That can be attributed to coach Sigi Schmid, a UCLA midfielder on three NCAA final four teams in the early 1970s. Shoddy play in goal kept those teams from winning the championship, a fault that Schmid set out to rectify when he took over as Bruins coach in '80. "I promised myself we would always have solid goalkeeping," he says. "So the first player I ever recruited was a goalkeeper, and we've had solid goalkeeping all the way through."

During Schmid's tenure UCLA has played in—and won—the 1985, '90 and '97 national championship games without allowing a goal. Along the way Schmid has developed current U.S. team keeper Brad Friedel and '90 World Cup veteran David Vanole, a Bruins assistant coach whom Reis considers his mentor. "He's had all this experience in the Olympics and the World Cup, and he knows the game," says Reis, a full-time starter for the first time in '97. "He even told me about playing for the U.S. down in El Salvador, where they threw batteries and bags of urine at him."

Though the 20,143 spectators on Sunday spared UCLA such projectiles, the atmosphere was decidedly pro-Virginia. (Perhaps the only support the Wahoos were missing was that of the Virginia band, which was banned by the NCAA after it stood behind the St. Louis goal during Friday's semifinal and successfully distracted a Billiken attempting a penalty kick.) "We knew coming into the game that the crowd would be against us," said Schmid, "but there's nothing like quieting a crowd for the other team."

No one did that better than Reis, who allowed only one goal in five NCAA tournament games. "He's the guy who gets the whole team going," said George. "When he's in a zone, we're in a zone. When he made that first huge save, there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to win." Schmid's strategy helped, too. Early in the second half, in an attempt to milk more offense from his team, he moved George from forward to the midfield, where he could make more dangerous runs. When forward Martin Bruno found him open on a counterattack in the 79th minute, George put away an easy shot for a 1-0 lead. He scored on another counter two minutes later, and soon the Bruins were storming the field to celebrate.

Theirs was a hard-earned championship. UCLA suffered so much attrition that the Bruins adopted the slogan You Gotta Be a Soldier, which Schmid scrawled on the locker room chalkboard before every tournament game. UCLA lost star midfielder Sasha Victorine for the season in September when he tore the ACL in his left knee, and two other starters also sat out the final with injuries. What's more, the Bruins prevailed though they had only one day of rest after a draining 1-0, triple-overtime upset of top-ranked and previously undefeated Indiana in their semifinal, a match that finally ended, after 132 minutes, on freshman McKinley Tennyson Jr.'s golden goal. ( Virginia, meanwhile, enjoyed a regulation 3-1 win over St. Louis in the other semi.)

As if the games weren't exhausting enough, nine Bruins had to take three-hour final exams in a hotel conference room last Thursday, and a crisis was barely averted on Saturday night after the NCAA demanded that UCLA's long-sleeve undershirts be the same dark-blue color as its uniform jerseys. Unable to obtain the correctly colored apparel, associate athletic director Betsy Stephenson spent the evening dyeing 22 white shirts in a third-floor washing machine at the Embassy Suites.

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