Gyasi Zardes will go down in Cal State Bakersfield's history as one of the top two or three athletes to put on a Roadrunner uniform.
"He's touted as the No. 1 player in the country," said CSUB men's soccer coach Simon Tobin, who's in his 26th season. "The only athlete comparable to that at Cal State is Steve Neal."
Neal was a two-time NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion, a former World Champion wrestler and three-time Super Bowl winner with the NFL's New England Patriots.
As for soccer, Tobin said Zardes is in a class by himself among all the standout players who have gone through the Roadrunner program.
"He's the best kid I've had in 26 years," Tobin said. "If I coach another 26, I'll never have a kid as good as this."
This weekend will likely be the last time Zardes will suit up for a CSUB home game.
Zardes has a year of eligibility remaining after this season, but he's all but certain to leave CSUB to play professionally, in Europe or with a Major League Soccer team.
"He will leave after this year," Tobin said. "The contract he'll be offered will be too good to turn down.
"Now is the right time for him to move on. He's done all he can at this level."
CSUB (7-4-4 overall, 4-3 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) plays host to the University of Denver today at 7 p.m., then plays host to Air Force on Sunday at 1 p.m. in its regular season home finale.
"I feel I have succeeded on the college level and it's my time to go on to the next level," said Zardes, who graduated from Hawthorne-Leuzinger High School in the Los Angeles area before coming to CSUB.
"My main focus now is helping the team succeed and go to the NCAAs this season."
Despite missing two games and parts of others with an early season leg injury, Zardes has 14 goals and seven assists in 13 matches. He had 18 goals and two assists last season in 20 matches. He ranks third in the nation in goals and is tied for sixth in assists.
His 37 career goals is second all-time at CSUB, behind Jeremy Gunn, who had 46 in four seasons from 1989-92. Gunn, now the head soccer coach at Stanford, is also No. 1 all-time at CSUB in points (120). Zardes has 90, which is tied for second with Ayman Hamid, who played from 1992-95.
Zardes was one of 15 semifinalists for last season's Hermann Trophy, considered the Heisman Trophy of college soccer. He's a candidate for the honor this season, so it's no surprise Zardes is a focus for each team CSUB plays.
"He was a little bit of an unknown quantity last year but now there's not a team in the country that's not aware of him," Tobin said. "If you're a great player, you've got to rise to that. Now it's crunch time, so he has to step it up even more."
Said Zardes: "This year teams really recognize me as a potential threat. I feel like coaches are evolving their defenses around me.
"But that gives players like Jesus Sanchez and Lucas Dall'Orso a chance to shine. When defenders guard me, it gives my teammates more opportunities to score."
Among Zardes' highlights this season are two memorable efforts.
He set a CSUB single-match record with four goals in a 6-2 win at Seattle on Oct. 14, then had a first-half hat trick in a 4-1 win at Houston Baptist last Friday.
Zardes had an opportunity to turn pro after last year but opted to return to CSUB, a decision he said he doesn't regret.
"When I look back, I feel I made the right decision," said Zardes, who will be only two classes short of his degree in physical education and kinesiology when the current quarter ends. "I feel I have really matured as a player."
Tobin said: "I feel very comfortable about turning pro, even if it's in Europe. He's mature enough to handle those things now."