COLLEGE: Canoga Park product is Michigan's hero

SANTA BARBARA -- This wasn't quite the senior season Jeff Quijano envisioned, but he was going to deal with the circumstances the best way he could: by being a leader.

Quijano's response to losing his starting job turned out to be one of critical elements that prodded the University of Michigan to its first NCAA College Cup, but the Wolverines' path to this weekend's men's soccer final four at UC Santa Barbara would require greater contributions from the former Canoga Park High School standout -- when it mattered most.

Michigan (17-4-3), the No. 10 seed, takes on second-ranked Akron (20-1-2) in Friday night's second semifinal at UCSB's Harder Stadium (ESPN2/ESPNU, 8 p.m. PT) and Quijano figures to make an impact. Just like last week.

The veteran right back, at his best when attacking up the flank, gave perhaps his finest collegiate performance in the Wolverines' quarterfinal shocker over second-seeded Maryland, surging forward to score the first goal and sending in the cross for the second in a 3-2 overtime triumph.

“The performances of Jeff Quijano are one of the main reasons we are in the College Cup,” said Michigan coach Steve Burns, who started the program 11 seasons ago. “That's a huge statement, but he deserves that kind of praise for how well he's played. … [Against Maryland] there were times when he just took over the game and was clearly our Man of the Match. Now he gets to lead us once more, and it's fantastic for Jeff that he's back home in California for his final games as a Wolverine.”

TO THE BENCH: The season didn't start so sweetly. After starting the first couple of games for the Wolverines, Quijano had been sent to the bench, replaced by a freshman.

Frustrating? You bet. Demoralizing? Not a chance.

“I figured if I'm not going to be on the field, there are other ways I can contribute to the team,” he said. “We have an amazing reserve squad, with the guys who don't play, and we call them the Orange Crush. I took a leadership role with the Orange Crush and embraced that role with the team.”

He's a natural leader and an emotional leader, and his influence was felt, even when he wasn't on the field, as Michigan started the campaign 8-2-3. Soon his efforts were rewarded.

“I was going to be ready,” he said. “If my number was called, I wanted to make sure to make a difference in the game. I was working with the Orange Crush, giving my all, and I caught my break. Against Northwestern, Coach said he'd give me a start, that he liked the way I was practicing. Since then I haven't looked back, and it feels great.”

Quijano has been in the lineup the last seven games, all victories.

“He has been fantastic, so much so that MLS scouts have started to take notice,” Burns said. “Jeffrey seems to have been able to harness his mental, physical and emotional strength and help lead this team to Santa Barbara.”

ANN ARBOR? Quijano played for elite club West Valley Samba -- the club later merged with So Cal United to form Real So Cal -- and was a key figure for Canoga Park's team, which in 2006-07 put together one of the finest seasons the high school game has ever seen.

Quijano was a captain for a Hunters squad that, under Jake Gwin's guidance, went 24-0-1 (outscoring foes, 100-12), won the CIF L.A. City Section title and was ranked No. 1 in the nation after taking down two other CIF champions -- Southern Section Division I titlist Loyola and Central Section Division I winner Clovis West -- to win the prestigious West Coast Classic.

Teammates -- including top scorer Camilo Rojas and assists leader Rafael Garcia -- went on to Cal State Northridge and other local schools, but Quijano wanted something different. He found it in Ann Arbor.

“When I took my [recruiting] trip to Michigan, they took me to a football game. I'd never been to a college football game,” Quijano said.

There were, as always, more than 105,000 people crammed into Michigan Stadium, and when they did the “wave,” he was hooked.

“I've seen the traditional 'wave,' but they did a way modified 'wave,' ” Quijano said. “They did a slow-motion 'wave,' a 'wave' that was sped up, 'waves' that went in different directions. I was like, wow, this is insane.

“I'm a kid from Canoga Park. Football is not really that big there. It's a strong Hispanic community. Soccer's the main sport. Football was just something -- I didn't really play it, didn't go out of my way to watch it. But 100,000 people doing the 'wave'? That was just super cool.”

MAKING AN IMPACT: Quijano, who has won All-Big Ten academic honors and is on target to graduate this academic year with degrees in psychology and Spanish, was in Michigan's starting XI at the start of his freshman year. He won all-tournament honors in the Wolverines' invitational two weeks into his college career -- he netted his first goal and got his first assist in the event -- but his playing time diminished as the season proceeded, and he saw action in just nine games as a sophomore.

He made 13 starts as the Wolverines went 10-7-1 last year, then was pegged as starting right back when this season began back in August. When he lost his starting job, he gained perspective, and it fueled him when he got his chance.

The reward arrived when the games really started to count. Michigan romped through the Big Ten Conference tournament, routing Penn State in the final, then pulled out three tight NCAA Tournament wins, at home against Central Florida (in overtime) and then on the road at South Carolina and Maryland, to book its trek to Santa Barbara.

“We found our form when the Big Ten Tournament hit. We found ways to score, overcame adversity, definitely were picking things up,” Quijano said. “People didn't realize how good we are.”

Quijano was at his best at Maryland, answering the Terrapins' early goal to tie the score 4½ minutes into the second half, then setting up Justin Meram with a go-ahead goal 10 minutes later.

“I was on cloud nine when that [tying] goal went in,” said Quijano, who hadn't scored this season and has just five goals at Michigan. “I knew it was exactly what we needed at the time. There was a lot of emotion going through me, and I knew the team could feed off of that.”

Maryland pulled even in the 78th minute, but Brazilian freshman Fabio Pereira struck a little more than 13 minutes into OT, and the Wolverines were headed to their first final four.

REMATCH: To reach Sunday's final, against No. 1 Louisville (19-0-3) or Atlantic Coast Conference champion North Carolina (16-3-4), Michigan must get past Akron.

The teams met on Oct. 19. The Wolverines were beaten, 7-1, a loss Burns calls “humiliating.”

“Akron beat the snot out of us that day …,” he said Thursday. “We got exposed for not being a strong enough defensive team. And if you're humbled like that, if you want to get better, you need to really think about what you didn't do well enough and address it. Our guys have been challenged from that point on to be a better, more disciplined defending team on an individual level and on a team level. And I think what they realized is that we can get the ball back quicker and we're a pretty dangerous attacking team. And a team that values possession.

“So they've all really bought into that defensive concept, and there's a direct correlation of why we're here -- because of that game.”

The Wolverines will need big performances from their stars: freshman Soony Saad (19 goals), the reigning Gatorade high school Player of the Year, and his older brother, Hamoody (6 goals, 7 assists), Meram (16 goals, 8 assists), and goalkeeper Chris Blais -- and from Quijano.

Quijano wasn't available in Akron -- he'd picked up a knock in practice the day before -- but he promises the Zips will get a better test than they received nearly two months ago.

“I'm really excited to play Akron,” he said. “They'll definitely see a different Michigan team than they saw earlier in the year.”