October 30, 1998
By Liza David
UCLA Media Relations
LOS ANGELES -- His is a story of perseverance, dedication and, above all, success.
Providing inspiration to millions of soccer players who didn't receive Division I scholarship offers is UCLA junior defender Steve Shak, who literally came out of nowhere to become the starting sweeper for defending NCAA champion UCLA, a nominee for the 1998 Hermann Trophy for National Soccer Player of the Year and a member of the U.S. Under-23 National Team.
Coming out of Gahr HS in Cerritos, Calif., Shak was not exactly the subject of an intense recruiting war. In fact, he did not even receive a single scholarship offer to play soccer. The only scholarship he did get was an academic one at Emerson College in Boston. The closest Shak had to a soccer scholarship was an offer from UC Irvine to join the team as a walk-on. Shak, a striker who scored 26 goals his senior year at Gahr, nearly accepted. But when UCLA head coach Sigi Schmid offered him the same option, Shak, a former camper at the UCLA Soccer Camps, decided to try his luck in Westwood, where he had always dreamed of playing. Besides, the opportunity to receive a good education at UCLA was too tempting.
Schmid gave Shak an extended try-out, which entailed being a member of the team but not playing for the entire 1996 season.
"It was a frustrating time," admits Shak, "but it's not like it was a surprise. Sigi had already told me what the deal was, and it wasn't that bad to sit the entire year. If I was on the team at all, if I could be involved with the team, I would be happy. I got to practice, but I didn't get to play, and I was okay with that. That was enough of a learning experience to develop as a player with the team."
The 1997 spring season proved to be the turning point for Shak. If he was going to make a strong impression to stay on the team, it would have to be during the spring. The only problem was that he would have to lose a year of eligibility in order to do so. There was never any hesitation on Shak's part. He played that spring and improved his game immensely.
Remembers Schmid, "Steve became really dedicated. He took his two areas he was strong at - striking and heading - and tried to separate himself from the rest of the guys and became the best striker of the ball and, for the most part, the best header of the ball among the defenders."
Another factor in Shak's improvement was his confidence and his teammates' confidence in him. "During my freshman year and in the spring, I played in the games and just got a lot more comfortable with the guys. I gained a little bit of respect from them, and it helped me with my confidence on the field," he said. "I think a lot of it is confidence and knowing that the coach knows you can play well, and that the guys on the team know you can play well."
After a summer of hard work and training ("That summer I worked the hardest I ever had, and I came into training as fit as I ever had been," said Shak), he earned a spot on the team, and his goal of making the travel squad looked good.
Recalls Schmid, "My expectation was that he was going to play for us some off the bench and get minutes and be our fourth defender."
Shak quickly established himself as more than that. In UCLA's first game of 1997, he made his collegiate debut in the 62nd minute after an injury to senior right back Kevin Coye. Shak started the next game and never looked back. When Coye returned to the lineup, Shak moved to the sweeper position and ended the season with the third-most minutes played on the team (1,982).
"Playing the whole year - it was the happiest time for me and my family," he said. "My family went to all the games even when I wasn't playing, and for them to see me succeed in something I want to do just made them happy. And I was happier because of that. It was a good time for our family in general and for me."
What made the Shaks even more happy was UCLA's 2-1 NCAA Quarterfinal win at home against Clemson.
Laughs Shak, "After the game, I couldn't find my dad anywhere in the stands. My mom was saying that he left to go book us all flights to Richmond. He was so excited. When we made it, I just knew that everyone in my family was going. There wasn't a doubt in anyone's mind because going to the Final Four was something more than I had ever dreamed."
In true Shak fashion, his dreams were again more than exceeded at the 1997 Final Four. Not only did the Bruins go, but they kept previously unbeaten Indiana scoreless throughout three overtimes before winning 1-0 and then shut out favored Virginia 2-0 in the Championship game to give UCLA its third NCAA title.
Through his outstanding play in the back during the Final Four, accolades and offers came rolling in for Shak. Included among them, a chance to play with the U.S. Under-23 National Team this past summer. Shak recalls going home and finding a message from U.S. Soccer on his answering machine.
"I was like, 'Oh my God!'" he said, his voice still exuding pleasure at the memory. "It was just unbelievable. I was screaming and yelling, the music was as loud as possible, and I was the only one home. That was a day I'll never forget."
Another day he'll never forget was his first game representing the U.S. He was a starter in that game and was on the field for the national anthem. "I was just looking at the flag, and I looked down and it hit me that I was representing my country," he said. "That's something not a lot of people can say they've done. It almost brought a tear to my eye; I was so emotional. I probably couldn't tell you a lot about the game, but I remember playing that national anthem. I can't really explain how that felt."
Miles away from his days as a walk-on, Shak has no regrets about any of his decisions.
"I know that coming to UCLA was the best decision I could make in my life," he asserts. "What I really want to do is play soccer. If I was at another school with another coach, I wouldn't have learned the things I learned from Sigi. He teaches a lot of things that relate to life - off the field stuff, not just soccer. Like how to be a good person."
Or how to give it your all and to know that if you work hard it will pay off. Like other former Bruin walk-ons who went on to play at the next level - Cobi Jones and Josh Keller - Shak worked hard to get where he is today.
"At the end of the day, the constant between Steve and Cobi and Josh is they all worked hard and dedicated themselves to improving parts of their game that they needed to improve upon," said Schmid. "The result of that was that they were able to rise above the other players who arrived in similar circumstances and move well beyond it."
Shak's future is definitely bright, and he hopes to continue to follow in Jones' and Keller's footsteps into the MLS and national teams.
"I think he's got a future to play beyond UCLA," said Schmid. "He's right now part of the Olympic pool, and hopefully he'll be a member of that team. For sure, he's got the capabilities of playing in MLS as a central defender or outside back and could possibly play as a defensive midfielder. If he continues to keep his feet squarely on the ground and know what helped get him to where he is now, he will succeed."
Said Shak, "It feels good to know I can start at the lowest level and work my way up to where I always wanted to be. To know that you achieved goals is a great feeling."