Fans flock to Santa Barbara

As a teen, Sam Garza traveled the world for soccer. The Highland Village, Texas, native and current UC Santa Barbara player represented the U.S. at overseas events and played all the elite domestic club tournaments. In addition, he led his high school team to a 30-0 showing and a national No. 1 ranking during his junior year of high school.

More often than not, however, Garza's play was witnessed by a limited number of spectators.

Such is the nature of youth soccer.

Now, Garza's play is witnessed by thousands of fans every time he and his teammates play at Meredith Field at Harder Stadium.

UC Santa Barbara leads the nation in average attendance among NCAA men's soccer programs, bringing in an average of 6,619 fans per home contest. The Gauchos are on pace to break the NCAA average attendance record, which UC Santa Barbara established last year at 4,335.

"The reputation that Santa Barbara has created with two Final Fours [since 2004] and winning one has helped a lot," Garza said of the program's staggering attendance figure. "Youth players attend the games, and we get a large fan base from that.

"And, then there's the Gaucho Locos," Garza added, paying homage to a campus organization that promotes student involvement in the university's sports programs. "They're all wearing yellow T-shirts, standing the whole game and cheering. They really get into it."

Garza said the home-game environment helps stir an emotional reaction from the players.

"When I was at Denver [before transferring to UC Santa Barbara], we'd get 200, 300, maybe 400 fans," he said. "When you play in front of 6,000 people it gives you more passion for the game. It makes you play for the fans. It makes you have more energy, and it's a dream come true, basically. It's almost like a pro environment."

Soccer America recently reported that attendance at the top 20 highest-drawing programs is up over last year. The report also stated that 35 NCAA Division I schools are averaging more than a 1,000 fans per match and eight are averaging more than 2,500 per match.

UC Santa Barbara, which plays host to the 2010 College Cup, shattered its home attendance record during an early season 2-0 victory over UCLA, which drew 15,896 fans -- 4,500 more than any previous home game in the program's history.

"That was ridiculous," Garza said. "Wow, that was electric. I expected we'd get a lot of people for that game. But then I saw the whole stands were packed. I was like, 'This sport is really taking off.' It was so loud you couldn't even scream at your own players and you couldn't even hear yourself scream. It was so lively, it really made me want to play harder."

Around the nation

Top 25 surprises: The NSCAA preseason rankings were released exactly three months ago Wednesday, and during that time there has been quite a shift among the nation's elite teams.

Current No. 1 Louisville started the year at No. 20. On the flipside, preseason No. 3 Wake Forest is nowhere to be found in the Top 25.

SMU has made the most surprising surge this year. After going 1-4-1 in its last six matches in 2009, SMU dipped to an uncharacteristic 6-8-2 showing. The Mustangs, unranked in the preseason, bounced back in 2010 with a 15-1 record and a national No. 5 ranking.

SMU also is No. 5 in the latest RPI standings, which represents a 74-position improvement over last year's final RPI standings, making it one of the top 10 overall turnarounds of the year and the greatest among the top 10 programs.

Overall, 13 of the current Top 25 teams were not in the preseason rankings. No. 6 Butler and No. 8 California join SMU as the preseason unranked teams that now occupy top-10 spots.

Turning it around: While SMU receives props for its skyrocketing return to the nation's elite, the Atlantic Sun deserves credit for a major shift in RPI for its top programs. Four of the top five greatest single-season improvements over last year, based on RPI rating, hail from the Atlantic Sun.

5. Mercer
Why: Only 13 teams rated lower than Mercer in the final 2009 RPI ratings, despite a not-so-horrible 7-11-2 record. This year, Mercer is 10-6-1 and checks in at No 83 in the RPI standings, an improvement of 108 spots.
What's different in 2010: Mercer is no longer digging itself out of first-half deficits and is not spending as much time defending corner kicks. Last year's squad was outscored 15-8 in first-half action. Although Mercer had a slight advantage in the second half, it wasn't enough to undo the damage. This year's team has outscored its opponents 11-8 in the first half. Mercer has also decreased the number of corner kicks allowed by 24 percent.

4. Lipscomb
Why: Lipscomb and Mercer were neighbors near the bottom of the RPI last year with Lipscomb at 189 and Mercer at 191. This year, they again are rated close to each other, but now in the top 100. Lipscomb's No. 76 rating this week means a jump of 113 spots compared to 2009.
What's different in 2010: It's all about finishing at Lipscomb. Last year's squad took a staggering 346 shots, scoring a meager 18 goals. That's about one goal every 19 shots. This year's Lipscomb team has taken only 252 shots, but has been rewarded with 35 goals -- a goal every 7.2 shots. The trio of Garret Pettis, Miguel DaSilva and Garrett McLaughlin has combined for 21 goals this year after netting only 10 in 2009.

3. UCF
Why: Central Florida already boasts a five-win improvement over last year, a performance that has resulted in a No. 29 RPI rating. Last year's squad ended at No. 159. UCF is the only non-Atlantic Sun member in the Top 5 top improvements.
What's different in 2010: It's all about second-half play in 2010 for UCF. Last year, UCF was outscored 15-11 after the first half. This year's squad has outscored the opposition 22-5 after halftime. In addition to the strong second-half showings, UCF has trimmed its goals against from 29 in 16 matches last year to 13 in 17 contests this year.

2. Florida Gulf Coast
Why: The third of four Atlantic Sun turnaround stories, Florida Gulf Coast has risen to No. 28 in the RPI ratings, a 133-position improvement over last year's No. 161 finish.
What's different in 2010: FGCU's trend of recruiting players from winning environments is paying off. Freshmen Ryan Price and Donovan Henry, who both played for successful high school programs in Florida, have combined for seven goals -- three-game winners -- and six assists. FGCU's offense has produced 30 percent more shots in 2010 over last year, but more importantly, the team is placing shots on goal at a 37 percent increase over last season. The net difference -- 35 goals in 2010 as compared to 27 last year. FGCU is 11-1 in its last 12 matches for a 13-3-2 overall mark. Last year's squad went 8-7-1.

1. East Tennessee State
Why: The Bucs leaped 144 spots in this year's RPI rankings, checking in at 38 this week after finishing at No. 182 in 2009.
What's different in 2010: Signs of an East Tennessee State turnaround started at the end of last year when the Bucs closed out the season by going 5-3 in their last eight matches and winning their last three home contests to finish at 6-9-3. This year's squad is 13-5 as it heads into the Atlantic Sun playoffs. Winning on the road and better defense have been keys to East Tennessee State's drastic turnaround. Last year's team managed a 1-7-1 record away from Summers-Taylor Stadium, while this year's squad is a respectable 6-4. Defensively, the Bucs have surrendered only 18 goals this year, down from 24 in 2009.

Recruiting Road: The most intriguing recent verbal commit is a midfielder picked up by Monmouth. Rumor is midfielder Kalle Sotka, a member of Finland's under-19 national team, is heading to the Northeast Conference power for the fall season. … Elsewhere, Matty Berman from New Jersey recently changed his verbal commitment to stay closer to home at Rutgers.

For the latest verbal commitment information, visit ESPNRISE.com.

Sheldon Shealer is the soccer editor of ESPNRISE.com, ESPN's high school sports site.