At the end of last year, while most Gauchos were preparing for a long and strenuous finals week, seniors Neil Jones and Tony Lochhead were preparing for a trip back to their native country of New Zealand. Both players were called to duty to play for their country on soccer’s highest platform – the World Cup.

Growing up in New Zealand, where both became fond of soccer, Jones and Lochhead always dreamed of playing for the all-whites, the pseudonym for their national team. Both have played on New Zealand national teams before, but never for the elite World Cup 23U squad.

After a 16-hour plane trip to Australia, where the World Cup qualifying event was held, UCSB men’s soccer players Jones and Lochhead didn’t find themselves playing with guys just out of high school – they were playing with men, the best men in the world.

Lochhead and Jones were two of just three collegiate players on the team, while the rest of the squad was comprised of professionals from major league soccer and professional leagues all over the globe.

“It was a great experience to play for my country and to play with the professionals on the New Zealand team,” Lochhead said. “The most enjoyable part was being in a professional environment and to gauge how my skills stood up against them.”

New Zealand, with a population of roughly 3 million, takes great pride in its national teams, and rugby is the only sport that comes close to sharing the spotlight with soccer. (Just don’t call it “soccer” if you ever visit; the proper name is “football.”)

“The sense of being part of your country is amazing,” Jones said. “When the New Zealand national anthem is playing before the game you get chills down your spine, with a real sense of pride and honor that you are representing your whole country.”

Though both Jones and Lochhead didn’t play very much during World Cup qualifying matches due to their inexperience on the international level, when the two UCSB veterans came into the game, both had immediate impacts on their team.

Jones had about as good of a debut as he could have in his first game played, netting a goal in a 10-0 rout over Tahiti.

“It felt good to be out there, and to see how I matched up with the other players was interesting,” Jones said. “Many of the players on other teams have been playing professionally for five to 10 years, and it was good knowing I could run with them.”

The two have prepared for this chance ever since they knew what soccer was, and an opportunity like this may be a ticket to the professionals after this season. For now, the focus is back on their last season as student-athletes, as Jones and Lochhead are trying to bring a national championship to UCSB.

“I think we have the potential to be really good; we have all the pieces and we just need to put the puzzle together,” Lochhead said of the upcoming season. “We have all the talent in the world, we are slowly getting better every game, and we are always looking to improve. From what we have done so far I think we have the potential to go all the way.”

Jones agreed UCSB has amazing potential and a real chance to do damage in not only the Big West Conference but in all of Division I soccer,

“We look really good this season,” Lochhead said. “We have some good players. We lost a lot with Memo [Arzate, 2003-04 UCSB midfielder], but in the back we are more solid and not giving up as many goals. We have a different style of play this season and it should be interesting to see how everything works out.”

With their extra play this summer against some of the world’s best players, both Jones and Lochhead hope the extra work will lead to greater things back in Santa Barbara.