ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jeff Rowland, one of the greatest Lobo soccer players, has been busy this week trying to devise a plan to derail one of the greatest Lobo seasons.
He once kicked UNM into the College Cup semifinals, now he wants to boot it from a chance to return there.
Rowland, a Hermann Trophy finalist for New Mexico in 2005, these days serves as an assistant coach at the University of Washington.
Washington, it so happens, is UNM’s Elite Eight opponent in Saturday night’s NCAA Tournament match in Seattle.
Rowland admits he peeked ahead when the NCAA bracket came out, but also knew a lot had to go right before the second-seeded Huskies and the No. 7 seed Lobos would cross paths.
“Root for the Lobos until you meet,” Rowland says.
And now here we are, ex-Lobo versus Lobos.
Before Rowland was an All-American, he was a walk-on. It’s something about which Rowland occasionally reminds New Mexico coach Jeremy Fishbein.
“He still teases me every time,” Fishbein says. “He loves that story.”
But there may have been a reason that Rowland, a La Cueva grad, didn’t get a scholarship out of high school. He tore up his knee during a club match and missed half of his junior and all of his senior years as a Bear.
“I’d like to think that,” Rowland says, laughing about it all these years later, “it all ended up working out.”
During his junior year at UNM, the Albuquerque native set a school record with 45 points (including 19 goals), helping the Lobos reach the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 16.
“In 2004, we thought we were a really good team,” Rowland says. “We had a tough loss to Virginia in the Sweet 16. We felt we should have gone further.”
In 2005, they did. Rowland scored the winning goal in the 94th minute to beat California to send the Lobos to the 2005 College Cup semifinals. They lost to Maryland in the title game, but that doesn’t change Rowland’s sentiments.
“We were such a tight group,” he says. “We had a lot of belief in each other. We believed we could win any game. I can’t say enough about it. It was a special group.”
Rowland was UNM’s first finalist for the Hermann Trophy, an All-American and an Academic All-American. He graduated magna cum laude with a degree in marketing. He spent time with Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas in Major League Soccer, but knee injuries stunted his pro career.
Yet, Rowland was not ready to leave the game.
“Soccer has been my love and passion forever,” Rowland says. “I wanted to play for a long time, but it only lasts so long.”
Meanwhile, Jamie Clark, who had been an assistant at UNM all four years Rowland was there, was moving on, as well. He had taken over the program at Harvard and asked Rowland to be his volunteer assistant.
Rowland followed Clark to Creighton and then to Washington.
“I love it,” Rowland says of coaching. “I love it more than I loved playing. There’s something about getting guys to enjoy what they’re doing. Working hard. Seeing them have fun. Guiding them on the field and through life.”
Both Clark and Fishbein have influenced him.
“They’re both very good coaches, that’s clear,” Rowland says. “They’re very different, too. Jamie, I think, is more a players’ coach. He’s hard on guys, but loose at the same time. Fish gets it out of you. He’s more laid back than he used to be. But he demands a lot. There’s no one way to do it. Both are phenomenal coaches. I was lucky to have such good coaches.”
Rowland runs into Fishbein quite a lot, particularly on the recruiting trail.
“I’m real happy for him,” Fishbein says. “He’s making a living in a sport he’s passionate about.”
Rowland’s job this week is to help beat Fishbein.
“It’ll be a really good game,” Rowland predicts. “Two unbelievably good teams. It’ll be a nail-biter. Both have a lot of different weapons. Both have front dynamic attacking players. Both are solid in the back.”
Rowland still has family in Albuquerque and returns at least once year.
“Some of my best memories, for sure,” Rowland says. “A lot of my best friends are Lobos from that team.”
Rowland will be best man at former Lobo Mike Graczyk’s wedding in January. Graczyk is an assistant at Stanford, the team Washington beat in the Sweet 16 last week. Rowland still keeps in touch with Brandon Moss, a current UNM assistant and another player from that 2005 Lobo team.
“It’s pretty neat to see these guys still involved,” Fishbein says. “When you step away from the winning and losing, the relationships are the most important things. If you’ve been able to impact people’s lives in a positive manner, that’s the real payoff.”
It’s something Rowland learned as a Lobo. It’s something he carries with him to the Huskies.