Benefield: Sonoma State University soccer team keeps focused with freeway workout

The Seawolves made the most of their time stuck in I-15 traffic on the way to a match over the weekend.|

Sonoma State men’s soccer coach Marcus Ziemer has long preached maintaining focus and handling adversity with his squad.

His team had to put that into practice in a most unusual circumstance Sunday.

The team, piled into a van en route to a key California Collegiate Athletic Association match with Cal State San Marcos, was stopped in the middle of Interstate 15 just south of the campus. California Highway Patrol had stopped both north- and southbound traffic for a suicidal person threatening to jump from an overpass.?“We were just sitting in traffic and we didn’t know what was wrong,” junior defender Eric Alvarado said.

Eventually motorists learned that officials were trying to convince a person to climb back over a railing and onto the roadway.

“Everyone was pretty shocked,” Alvarado said. “I have never been in anything like that.”

Ziemer had the delicate job of balancing what was happening up the road and out of sight with keeping his team focused for a game for which he now had no real timetable.

“Marcus was staying on us, saying ‘We are just going to push the game back a little bit, so you need to stay prepared,’” Alvarado said.

With no idea when travel would resume, the team got out of the vans and set up a temporary camp. They laid out leftover chicken and rice from a meal at Alvarado’s parents’ house the night before, set up their game time Gatorade jugs and, of course, pulled out the soccer balls. They played soccer tennis using the freeway median as a net.

They stayed loose, but tried to remember why they were there.

“At first it was really hard to stay focused,” Alvarado said. “No one really knew what was going to happen. Marcus was saying, ‘You have to stay focused and keep your head.’ That’s when we brought out the soccer balls, we were passing back and forth.”

Ziemer, too far down the highway to see what was happening, said he was trying to get the team to compartmentalize the situation.

“We felt bad,” he said. “We weren’t focused on why” we were stopped, he said.

“I told them to eat, but not eat heavy,” he said. “We didn’t know how long we’d be there.”

The Seawolves, wearing school colors and juggling on the interstate, became a focus point for motorists.

“People were taking pictures with us,” Ziemer said. “Even the police stopped and were talking to the guys.”

In the end, the person who threatened to jump didn’t. He was helped back over the barrier and Escondido police took him to get help, according to the CHP.

That conclusion was “a big positive,” Alvarado said.

“It wasn’t the best of situations to be in. It was a shame,” Alvarado said. “I thought we handled it really well.”

When traffic began moving again, about 75 minutes later, Ziemer kept after the players to regain focus.

The pregame strategy talk was abbreviated. The visualization took place on the bench, not the locker room. Warm-up was cut short. Still, the Seawolves were sharp right out of the gate, Ziemer said.

“We talked to them about being focused and don’t forget why we are here,” he said.

Apparently, through the whole extraordinary afternoon, it worked.

“We were ready,” he said. “We played so well.”

Down 1-0 at the half, Ziemer said his confidence never wavered.

“We’ve been there before,” he said. “Sure enough, we got a PK.”

Alvarado stepped up and put it away to tie it up less than two minutes into the second half. Freshman Evan Roehrig got the game winner, and the first goal of his SSU career, in the 54th minute.

“That win put us on top of the table for the conference,” Alvarado said.

The Seawolves are now 4-2-4 overall and 4-1-1 in the CCAA.

And as well as they are playing, Ziemer says they have it in them to be better.

“We are a very good team,” he said. “We could easily be undefeated to be honest with you. We struggled to score goals early. We didn’t put away chances that we are now putting away.”

“There hasn’t been a team better than us that we’ve played,” he said. “Soccer is a funny game, sometimes that is not enough.”

The Seawolves travel to Fresno State on Wednesday for a non-conference contest before hosting Cal State Monterey Bay in a CCAA match Oct. 14 at 12:30 p.m. Key contests this month include a game at Chico State on Oct. 21 and a home game with Dominguez Hills Oct. 27.

“It’s a great group of guys,” Ziemer said. “They are a lot of fun together … hopefully we can keep it rolling and give us an opportunity in the postseason.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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