By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Spencer Richey was one of those kids who knew what he wanted to do and knew it at a young age.
A Seattle native who moved to Florida at the age of 15 to attend the Bradenton Prep Academy as a nationally renowned goalkeeper, Richey committed to the University of Washington as a sophomore in high school because he wanted to come home and bring the UW men’s soccer program back to prominence.
But before he played his first game, goalkeepers coach Richard Reese left the program to take over a full-time position for some local club teams. When Reese, a native of England who now lives in Mill Creek, left the Huskies, Richey started exploring his transfer options.
“It was insane,” Richey said this week. “… I was kind of in a panic. But at the end of the day, it was something I wanted to stick out.”
By that fall, the Huskies missed out on the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year, and longtime coach Dean Wurzberger was fired.
Richey didn’t know where the program was headed.
Tonight, that question gets answered. The Huskies are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, and a lot of it has to do with a new head coach, UW’s goalkeeper and Reese.
Jamie Clark, who was hired to replace Wurzberger in 2011, brought back Reese and rebuilt the roster with transfers and incoming freshmen. Two years into his tenure, he has the Huskies ranked 24th in the nation and hosting a first-round game against Air Force tonight.
“In a program like this,” Clark said, “making the NCAA tournament every year has got to be a goal.”
The Huskies lost two scorers from last year’s team, both of whom are on Major League Soccer rosters, and so there were big questions about offense this season. Still, UW’s goal remained the same: get back into the 48-team NCAA soccer tournament.
That goal was achieved through a strong defense with Richey in goal and the motivation of being left out of last year’s tournament despite a 12-4-2 record in Clark’s first season at the helm.
“They know in the back of their minds they have something to prove,” Clark said of his players. “It got them working hard from January through June, and that’s usually when some of the best stuff happens.”
The makeover of the team since Clark arrived has been startling. Eight transfers dot the roster, including six Seattle-area natives who came back home. There are just three players from Richey’s Class of 2011 recruiting class — he actually enrolled in January of that year — still on the team.
“It’s not ideal,” Clark said of rebuilding a program through transfers. “We’ve had a lot of Washington kids want to come home. Hopefully in the future, the Washington kids won’t want to leave in the first place.”
In a soccer-mad city, UW soccer is still trying to find its niche. In the biggest game of the season, an announced crowd of only 1,341 showed up for an Oct. 29 home loss to UCLA. In just two of UW’s other eight home games did attendance crack the 1,000-fan mark.
“I want the city to be proud of our team,” Clark said, “but I also understand that it’s going to take results. They’ve got such quality in the Sounders, and we have to do things very right in order to win over the general public.”
With a rare NCAA tournament game on tap for tonight, Clark doesn’t quite know what to expect in terms of fan turnout.
“I hope people want to see the NCAA tournament,” he said. “It usually builds and builds, if you can get a couple of games. But I hope people realize this is our one home game, it’s our one chance to be in the tournament. So if they want to come, they have to be there Thursday.”
No matter what happens tonight, Richey is happy that he came home and stayed. The Seattle native, now a junior, knows that UW soccer is on the way up.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” he said.