BY NICK LOZITO Special to The Californian firstname.lastname@example.org
Gyasi Zardes would love to run free in the open field. Or orchestrate a give-and-go pass combination with teammate Lucas Dall'Orso. Or make an unassuming run to the far post.
But that's pretty unrealistic at this point in his collegiate career.
The Cal State Bakersfield junior is a marked man, as evidenced in Sunday afternoon's 1-1 draw with Air Force Academy at the Main Soccer Field, the Roadrunners' final home match of the regular season.
At this point in the season, Zardes is probably more fit to play power forward for Rod Barnes' men's basketball team. The soccer forward routinely boxes out multiple defenders in hopes of gaining a touch. And when he does get possession, up to six cleats may attempt to pry the ball away.
Such is life for one of the nation's top prospects.
"With (Zardes) on top there are three or more guys around him," said Dall'Orso, a sophomore midfielder, "which makes me have more free time with the ball."
That is exactly what developed early in the second half, when a heavily-defended Zardes fed Dall'Orso, who ran down the left side before crossing to Jesus Sanchez, who netted the match's first goal.
Air Force responded less then four minutes later when Brian Klazura rocketed a shot past goalkeeper Eric Shannon from 25 yards out.
Neither team created any serious chances over the remaining 45 minutes of regulation and overtime before Dell'Arso powered a shot over the crossbar in the closing seconds.
Despite being double-and triple-teamed throughout the game, Zardes managed a game-high 11 shots.
With the draw, the Roadrunners (8-4-5, 5-3-1 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) need only a tie in their final regular season match (Friday at UNLV) to secure the MPSF Pacific Division title and a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
"People forget this is only the third year we've been eligible for Division I postseason," said CSUB coach Simon Tobin, heaping praise on his senior class after the match. "This is their team that took us to Division I. And this is their team that made us one of the top programs in Division I in a very short time. It's about what kind of players you recruit, and they're some of the best players in the country. They make coaching easy."
If CSUB were to win the conference tournament (to be held at New Mexico) and earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, there is an outside chance the Roadrunners could host a first-round game if rewarded with a high enough seed.
Though only a junior, Zardes was introduced before Sunday's match along with the outgoing CSUB seniors -- Shannon, Sanchez, Kory Kindle, Ernesto Hinojosa and Justin Finch.
It's all but certain that Zardes, who hails from Hawthorne and has Brazilian roots on his father's side, will turn pro once the season ends.
"That's what it looks like," said the forward, who has 14 goals and nine assists on the season. "I'm not 100 percent sure what decisions or options I have, because I tell my coach to keep it away from me."
With the postseason approaching, Zardes has enough on his plate -- and usually a few defenders on his back.
Women: Southern Utah 3, CSUB 2
CEDAR CITY, Utah -- Stacy Brinkman scored on a free kick in overtime to defeat the Roadrunners in their season finale.
Sam Pena and Emily Noeth scored to give CSUB (6-11-2) a 2-1 haltime lead, before the Thunderbirds rallied.