Imagine leaving everything you love.
Imagine saying goodbye to your family, friends and life, just to play a sport that could potentially be your ticket to becoming a professional athlete.
This was the case for senior forward Neil Jones of the UCSB men’s soccer team.
Jones, who was born in Takapuna, New Zealand, left everything and decided to play soccer for the Gauchos.
Jones was recruited after being scouted by the Santa Barbara coaches in a World Cup under-17 game against the United States and was asked to come to UCSB.
“I came out for a recruiting trip, saw the campus and loved it,” Jones said. “I could feel that UCSB had a good program [that] wanted to go places and eventually win a national championship.”
“Jonesy,” as his teammates call him, is a swift runner with excellent scoring and defensive abilities.
He says that he idolizes the great soccer player Ruud Van Nistelrooy, but credits his team for most of their victories.
“The key to winning games and going to the Final Four is having a solid defense,” Jones said. “All around, our team is looking really solid.”
Jones is academically a senior, but still has one more year of eligibility to play for Santa Barbara after this season, and right now he is scoring goals like every game is his birthday. The team really likes and respects Jones, and knows how important an ingredient he is to the Gauchos.
“Neil is a great guy as a player and a person, who really makes it a point to become close with everyone on the team,” freshman teammate Greg Curry said. “He really had big shoes to fill coming in for 2002 forward Rob Friend, and Jonesy has done well scoring many goals when we needed them.”
He is ranked 30th in the nation with teammate Memo Arzate, averaging 1.57 goals per game. But Jones really credits his goalie Dan Kennedy, who has allowed only one goal in the past three games.
“Danny Kennedy is playing amazing and is really making our team look good,” he said.
After growing up watching and admiring soccer, Jones dreams one day of becoming a professional soccer player himself, in whatever country the ball decides to take him.
“I would love to play in the MLS or somewhere in Europe because I love the style of soccer in Europe and it is more suited to my kind of play,” he said. “My dream is to become a professional soccer player and anything that comes my way – I would love to take it.”
Jones said he thinks the Gauchos, who finished the season at 15-4-1, have a team that can win a championship. They earned the #11 seed for the NCAA playoffs after working extremely hard throughout the season.
“I think that we have a really good chance for a championship,” Jones said. “We’re going to take it game by game, looking at the teams and analyzing them.”
Though Cal eliminated Santa Barbara last year from the playoffs, Jones said he feels the toughest opponent will be UCLA, if they can meet them in the championship.
“UCLA seems like our toughest opening because they are undefeated and ranked #1 in the nation,” he said. “They consist of many national team players that are very well-coached, but we are just looking one game at a time until we meet them in the later rounds.”
The Gauchos take on the winner of the Cal – San Jose State game in the second round of the playoffs due to a bye in the first round because of their season record. But UCSB really wants to see the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year – Cal.
“The guys hope they get Cal so they can get some revenge, and everyone seems really pumped to play them,” Curry said.
“On paper, we have one of the best teams in the nation, but it all comes down to putting on the field at night,” Curry said.
Jones and the Gauchos face San Jose State or Cal on Nov. 26 at Harder Stadium.