Young Gators provide bite

The goalkeeper calls them the “spiciness” of the team.

The leading scorer says they are “most passionate.”

The midfielder who made team captain as a sophomore claims the respect they get is duly earned.

What is clear is that on the San Francisco State men’s soccer team, “they” — underclassmen and new arrivals — contribute the core of the team’s production. The top three scorers are two sophomores — forward Dylan Glass and captain Wes Whitt — and a freshman, midfielder-forward Franco Cruz.

After opening 4-1 with the only loss to Seattle Pacific (then ranked No. 1 in the Far West Region of Division II), the Gators then lost four out of six, including an uneven start to a crucial eight-game homestand that continues this weekend.

Still, with a 2-1 win Sunday over Cal State Monterey Bay, SFSU (7-5) remained in second place in the North Division at 4-3, preserving an inside track toward the California Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. And as the Gators shift into playoff drive, the team will rely increasingly on these young players who, together with junior goalkeeper Israel Cisneros, a transfer, are among the least experienced on the roster.

The youth movement represents the fruit of a change in coach Joe Hunter’s recruitment policy. Hunter built the program mainly with junior college transfers for most of his first 12 seasons.

“Three years ago, we started really bringing in freshmen,” Hunter said. “The freshman players are a lot more prepared for the college game than they used to be.”

Glass led SFSU in goals last year with six and the early part of season was especially marked by his continued development. The Mohawked offensive star, who has eight goals, makes surprising runs to win balls out of nowhere and tosses subtle continuation passes to teammates. His coach calls him “a classic poacher.”

“Last year, I came into the season really ragged and didn’t really know what to expect,” said Glass, who played at Alta Loma High School in Rancho Cucamonga. “Now I know what to expect.”

Added Whitt: “Dylan’s positioning is perfect. A great goal scorer is in the right place at the right time. My job is to do the dirty work. His job is to finish.”

The two hooked up again Sunday, only the other way round. Fifteen minutes into the second half, Glass slipped past Otters defender Steven Masters near the right corner, drawing a foul when Masters tugged his jersey. On the free kick, Glass placed his ball for Whitt — jostling among a group lined up like a picket fence in front of the goal — who headed it powerfullypast the keeper to tie the score 1-1.

“We’re always looking for each other on the field first,” Glass said.

But a lack of senior leadership sometimes shows, as it did Friday when the Gators moved under a cloudy sky as if they were part of the fog and got flattened by Division III Holy Names 3-1. Players afterward complained about poor communication and lack of readiness.

Although Glass admits his own leadership style is nonverbal, he and Whitt are plainly the key to SFSU’s fortunes.

“We’re the most passionate guys,” Glass said. “Wes is so ferocious and nasty and gets you fired up. Some of the older guys are not as vocal.”

“The older guys already know their functions and how to hold the team down together,” Cisneros said. “The young guys are kind of like the spiciness on the team. More enthusiasm, just a different generation of player.”

SFSU this week

» FRIDAY: San Francisco State (7-5) vs. Notre Dame de Namur (4-7), 1 p.m.

» SUNDAY: San Francisco State (7-5, 4-3) vs. Chico State (6-8, 3-5), 12:30 p.m.

» WHERE: Cox Stadium

» MORE INFO: http://athletics.sfsu.edu

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