BERKELEY — After missing the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season last year, the Cal men's soccer team set out to be the best conditioned squad in the country. So far, they're succeeding and last week the effort produced the program's first-ever No. 1 ranking.
In less than four weeks, the No. 1 Bears (6-0-1) went from unranked to head of the class, knocking off No. 2 Maryland and No. 3 Georgetown on their way to the top. But as Pac-12 Conference play kicks off this week, coach Kevin Grimes said his team isn't getting caught up in the polls.
"We understand that there's going to be an ebb and flow to a poll throughout a season," he said. "Whether we're ranked No. 1 or unranked, we go about our business the same way every day."
At the end of the 2012 season, the Bears held a players only meeting to draw up a blueprint for returning to the tournament. After losing several games on late goals, the team decided to focus on conditioning in the offseason to reverse the trend.
"It was straight players only and we looked each other in the eyes and said, 'if this is something we really want, we all need to buy into it,'" midfielder Alec Sundley said.
The team started getting after it in July, running on the fire trails through the Berkeley Hills, oftentimes for more than hour. They also hit the weight room and scrimmaged regularly.
"Fitness is a big component of the game and we needed all 22 guys to be fit and ready to go," conditioning coach David Ziemba said.
The extra work paid off right away. Cal opened the season by beating No. 3 Georgetown 2-0 before upsetting No. 2 Maryland with a 3-2 overtime win two days later.
The return of fifth-year senior Steve Bimbaum, who missed the entire 2012 season with a knee injury, is a boost offensively and defensively. In seven games, Bimbaum has scored five goals.
"There's not too many players in the country that can effect the game on both sides of the ball consistently," Grimes said. "It's not just his ability to score, it's his passing and his distribution out of the back."
The Bears have also benefitted from Sundley's two game-winning goals in overtime and senior Seth Casiple's team-leading four assists. In between the pipes, goalkeeper Justin Taillole has produced a 0.55 goals against average and an .800 save percentage.
But with the conference season opening at Edwards Stadium on Thursday against Oregon State, Casiple said the Bears need to stay motivated.
"We need to go out there with a blue-collar mentality," he said. "If we can outwork them, we will outplay them because that's how we get things done out here."