BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Sam Fletcher did well to hide his feelings when the UCSB soccer team kicked off its season in late August.
“I was pretty frustrated early in the season,” he recalled.
Frustrated, because he had redshirted his freshman season at UCSB last year and thought his time had come to be one of the starting midfielders this season. But off the season-opening kickoff at home against UNLV, there was no Fletcher sighting. It was the same when the team made its first road trip in September.
“The first trip we went out to Oregon and Gonzaga, and I just watched, I didn’t play,” Fletcher said. “I talked to (coach) Tim (Vom Steeg) before the season and he had told me my time was coming. I didn’t play until spring during my freshman year last year, but he told me he believed in me and trusted me.”
The trust and faith Fletcher had in his coach and the program was tested immediately after this season began.
Through the first eight games, Fletcher hardly knew what the field looked like during a game. Then came Sept. 28, the big match against then-No. 2 ranked Stanford. Junior midfielder Kaya Fabretti had gone down with an injury and was unavailable against the mighty Cardinal.
Fletcher’s time had finally come.
“I got my chance against Stanford when Kaya went down with an ankle injury,” Fletcher said. “I think that was the first time I got a chance to really prove that I could play in the big games.
“That was massive for my confidence. After that game I just knew that in big games, in certain situations, Tim would be looking at me.”
Vom Steeg has ever since.
And today, the Gauchos will rely heavily on the great work Fletcher gives them as a defensive midfielder when they take on No. 5 seed Indiana in a Round of 16 match in the NCAA Tournament. Fletcher was nothing short of brilliant during last Sunday’s 4-0 win at No. 12 seed St. Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He was also special in the Gauchos’ tournament-opening 3-1 victory at home against Cal on Sept. 21.
After going through some frustrating moments in the beginning of the season, Fletcher has become one of the bright young stars of a program that is 14-4-4, and back in the Round of 16 for the first time since 2015.
“He’s given us what we needed at the moment, and that’s his energy and his workrate,” Vom Steeg said. “It’s really remarkable. At the moment that we needed the right kind of player against Stanford, which was energy and running, he played well in that game.”
Fletcher started last Sunday at St. Mary’s in place of senior midfielder Sahid Conteh, who went down with a season-ending knee injury in the Cal match. While the Gauchos scored four times and blew the Gaels away with a tremendous offensive performance, Vom Steeg felt Fletcher, a defender, was the best player on the field that afternoon in Moraga.
“Now that Sahid has gotten hurt, it’s opened up a spot for Sam, and he’s taken full advantage of that opportunity,” Vom Steeg said.
Fletcher’s commitment, belief in himself and his sticktoitiveness hasn’t just been noticed by Vom Steeg. His teammates are well aware of the example that he’s set by not giving up in the face of disappointment.
“I’m just very, very proud of him,” said junior defender Carson Vom Steeg, who’s been out all season with a knee injury. “Even when he’s not starting, he always has the best positive attitude on the team. He’ll give 100 percent more than anybody else on this field.
“You can count on Sam, even though he’s one of the younger guys. You can count on Sam, and people know it.”
The Gauchos are counting on Fletcher again today when they tangle with the Hoosiers at their place. Indiana is 15-2-4 this season and 10-0-2 at home.