In the world of UCSB men’s soccer, recognition is all about opportunity. With talented players up and down the roster, it can be difficult at times for more unknown players to break through into the spotlight.

That was the case for the Daily Nexus’ Male Athlete of the Year, Santa Barbara junior striker Chris Pontius. The position striker fails to encompass all that the Yorba Linda native has meant to the team throughout his three seasons. During his first two years as a Gaucho, Pontius was asked to do a little bit of everything, be it filling a gap in the defensive line, playing anywhere in the midfield, or helping out up front if the need was there.

“I turned in a highlight video and I was recruited because I showed that I could be a good all-around player,” Pontius said. “I didn’t expect to be a defender or a forward, but more of a role player who would help where I was needed.”

Where Pontius was needed during the 2008 campaign ended up being up front after junior forward Nick Perera and senior forward Tino Nunez struggled to find the net in the early going. Pontius first found the back of the net in the squad’s third match – and not coincidentally UCSB’s first win – against University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He then went on an absolute tear, tallying seven goals in six games, including goals in four straight. Pontius tallied a hat trick against UC Irvine for his first career multi-goal game, en route to earning Big West Player of the Week honors along with being named College Soccer News and Soccer America’s national player of the week.

“With how productive he is, we had no choice but to keep moving him closer to the goal,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “He’s been very successful at knowing where to be near the goal.”

When all was said and done, Pontius finished second on the squad with 24 points, only one behind team and conference leader sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien. Pontius was named the Big West Offensive Player of the Year after leading the league with 11 goals and he helped the Gauchos get the monkey of its back in a way, scoring twice off the bench in UCSB’s 3-2 road win over rival Cal State Northridge, its first win down south since 2000.

The most surprising aspect of the talented striker’s breakout season was its unexpected nature. During UCSB’s national title run in 2006, Pontius was featured as one of the team’s premier two-way midfielders, but rarely found opportunities near the goal. But he had always wanted to play closer to the goal, and when he got a chance he exploited the opportunity and became one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in the country.

“Getting goals early on and scoring in the first couple of games got me on track,” Pontius said. “The coaching staff picked up on it and I continued to produce.”

Where Pontius goes from here remains to be seen. After such a dominant year, MLS clubs surely would have come calling around draft time, but another productive year can only improve his stock. Seeing the names of Gauchos called on Superdraft day has become the norm, and when 2009 rolls around Pontius’ name could very well be near the top of the list.

“It’s definitely always been a dream of mine to play professionally at the next level,” Pontius said.

With such a strong vision for the back of the net, that dream looks to become a reality in the next year.