Pender "hard-nosed" defender, won with class

What better clich in sports is there than “offense wins games, but defense wins championships?”

Football has tackles, sacks, and interceptions. Basketball has rebounds, blocks, and steals. Baseball has double plays, strikeouts, and plays at the plate. But what goes unmentioned by the statisticians in soccer is the number of times that defensemen win headers, clear balls, break up plays, and do whatever they can to help their keepers defend their goals.

Dylan Pender is one of those defensemen. A four-year starter on the backline at San Jose State for head coach Gary St. Clair’s Spartans, Pender contributed to 36 wins, 17 shutouts, and a 2003 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship and NCAA Tournament berth. He was named co-captain, was one of three players to start every game of the 2005 season, and helped lead his team to an overall record of 11-5-3 and 7-2-1 in conference action.

“He’s extremely focused, fit, and very professional,” St. Clair said of Pender. “I don’t think anyone on this year’s team lead more by example than Dylan.”

So while there are no individual numbers to tell the story of Pender’s contribution to the team, a closer look at the intangibles, the things that made him successful at the Division I level, illustrates his journey from Chicago to San Jose, with stops at the under-17 and under-19 U.S. National Championships along the way.

COOL, CALM, AND COLLECTED

Pender’s soft-spoken Midwestern manners and humility hide his tenacity and toughness that show up as soon as he takes the field. What never shows up when he takes the field are any kind of pre-game jitters. Ever.

“Why get nervous? Soccer is fun,” he said. “College sports are supposed to be fun.”

While other athletes may find themselves tighten up during big games when they realize what’s at stake, Pender isn’t one of them.

“Those are your opportunities to show what you’ve got, to show who you are,” Pender said.

That attitude is one thing that the statistics do show. As a defender, Pender only scored four goals in his four seasons, but two of them came against the Spartans’ toughest competitor, New Mexico. His first goal of 2005 came in San Jose State’s 3-2 defeat of the Lobos in Albuquerque, and his second came a few weeks later at Spartan Stadium in the Lobos’ 3-1 avenge of the earlier loss. In two games that may have mattered more than any other ones they played in 2005, Pender definitely did his part to show the nationally-ranked Lobos what he and his teammates had. In fact, Pender was the only player in the country to score twice against New Mexico this season.

But even earlier in 2005, the Spartans showed the character that St. Clair would later say would be the team’s biggest asset. After going 5-13-1 in a disappointing 2004 season, the Spartans opened the regular season against Stanford and shut out the Cardinal in a double overtime 0-0 tie. It would be the Spartans’ first of eight overtime games this fall, eight games that either ended in ties or wins, but never in losses. Pender said that’s his favorite time of the game, when it’s the end of regulation and there’s still more soccer to play. He said that those are the times when he felt that he was able to contribute even more.

“It’s intense,” Pender said of playing in games, “but your adrenaline is going and you’re running nonstop. After a while, you can’t even feel your body any more. Different players fatigue at different times in games. At certain points in the games, maybe I was in better shape that everyone else.”

He attributes his freshness at the end of games, and especially in overtime situations, to his work ethic in the preseason, during which he plays as much soccer as possible to get in shape.

“Just playing soccer gets you in the best shape for the season,” he explained. “Playing in those games also forces you to do things when you’re tired and when you don’t think you can.”

WISE BEYOND HIS YEARS

Pender’s maturity as a person has also molded the way he behaved as a competitor. Despite the “win at all costs” attitude that some players in many sports adhere to, Pender refuses to play that way.

When things would get dicey in games and his opponents and teammates would foul each other hard, Pender tried not to get involved.

“You want to win, but when you do, you want to win with class,” Pender said. “If you get fouled hard, it makes you the bigger person when you don’t retaliate. I don’t think you can win with class if you do things that distract from playing the game. There’s a fine line between playing hard and being cheap. You just need to focus on what you can control and that’s how you play.”

As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, the son of a travel agent mother, Hilary, who was a collegiate skier, he began skiing at age three and playing soccer at age five. He played every sport he could get his hands on, always wanting to be outside, and playing inside when the weather kept him in. He was a centerfielder/third baseman as a baseball player, a shooting guard on the basketball court, and became a lacrosse setter when he took that up in middle school.

A SUPPORTIVE MOTHER

Hilary Pender, who raised Dylan and his older brother, Brett, largely on her own, played an important role in her son’s development into a mature, independent young man who also happened to become one of the best high school soccer prospects of the class of 2001. Hilary Pender says that when her boys were growing up and playing soccer, she noticed that there weren’t many good youth soccer camps in the Chicago area. So in 1994, she started her own camp, Adventura Sports Soccer School. She went to Germany, recruited some of the German elite level coaches and worked out deals to get them to come back and teach at her camp every summer, which she continued to run through the summer of 2001.

“The coaches stayed with us in our home during those summer and I think the boys really learned a lot just from being around them,” Hilary Pender said.

When it came time to start high school, Pender said he knew he had to make a decision and focus on one sport. Even at that age, he had the maturity and the presence of mind to make that choice based on his future goals.

“I picked soccer because, at that time, it was the only sport I thought I could go on to play professionally,” he said. “Even as a shooting guard, I was only 6-1, and there are so many baseball players, I didn’t think I had a real shot to play professional baseball. So I picked soccer.”

VARSITY-ALL FOUR YEARS

Pender was a top high school prospect coming out of Evanston Township High School in his hometown of Evanston, Ill. The Wildkits went 23-2-2 his senior season, recording 17 shutouts, including 13 consecutive, and a 0.852 goals against average, earning a berth in the Illinois state semifinals. He played on the varsity team all four years of high school for coach Franz Calixte.

“Historically, we’ve had a very successful program [at Evanston Township High School], so it was very rare for us to bring a freshman right up to the varsity,” Calixte said of Pender. “He was just such a dominant, hard-nosed player.”

Calixte said that Pender was “an air ball specialist” even as a freshman.

“His ability to win head balls was what earned him a spot in our varsity team right away,” Calixte said.

Calixte also noted that the Wildkits of Pender’s senior season were one of the greatest teams in the illustrious history of the high school’s soccer program and that Pender was an integral part of it.

“That was a very special team and they had a lot of character,” he said. “We compare every varsity team we’ve had since to that team in 2000."

OFF TO THE WEST COAST

The only Spartan on the 2005 roster to come from a city and high school outside the Pacific time zone, he was recruited by schools over the country, but only really entertained offers from ones ranked in the top 30. Among some of the collegiate powerhouses that tried to attract him were Rutgers, Akron, UNC-Greensboro, East Carolina, and Saint Louis University. Calixte said that Saint Louis University has not been back to recruit players at Evanston Township since Pender’s senior year, something he points to as a good indication of Pender’s dominance as a defender.

When Pender was contacted by San Jose State, St. Clair and his Spartans had just gone 20-1-1 and were ranked No. 1 in the nation the fall of 2000. Pender was impressed with the program’s success and the players that were already on the team, as well as the recruiting class that he was to be a part of that included 15 freshmen. He liked the idea of being in a position to build a team with the same players throughout his collegiate career. Leaving his suburban Chicago home and moving to the West Coast to go to school didn’t intimidate him because it was the norm among other members of his graduating class, many of whom left for schools on the East Coast and in the South.

“I really don’t know if I would’ve gone to college if it hadn’t been for soccer,” Pender revealed. “I probably would’ve found a job and worked instead.”

As children, both the Pender boys traveled often with their mother, so being away from home was never really a big deal to them. While some parents might’ve been reluctant to send their youngest son off to college 2500 miles from home, Hilary Pender said it was up to Dylan all along.

“He was 18 and it was his decision,” Hilary Pender said of her son’s choice of San Jose State. “I taught my boys that when you’re 18 you should make your own decisions and you have to live with them or die with them. He’s been required to figure things out on his own a lot during his life and that’s forced him to be independent.”

Dylan will graduate in May 2006 majoring in sociology and a minor in business management. He said that San Jose State’s atmosphere as a commuter campus doesn’t lend itself well to partying and it was a place he knew he’d come to and focus on soccer and doing well in the classroom.

As a defenseman, Pender said that he knows he does one thing better than anyone else.

“Winning headers,” he said “I was good at winning headers from an early age and my teammates could always count on me for that.”

As one of the team’s anchors on the backline, he said that some times he wishes he would’ve gone in for plays, but it was hard because he was never totally sure of who was behind him, backing up the keeper.

“When you’re playing club soccer, you play with guys for a long time, but, it’s not like that at this level,” Pender explains. “You never get a chance to play with guys long enough to actually mesh with them as well.”

He also admits that he has good timing and positioning on the field, in terms of knowing where to be at what times. Those soccer instincts, he says, can be taught, as his humility keeps him from saying what he thinks he’s really good at when it comes to playing soccer. His tenacity and intense work ethic, he finally agrees, are things that probably can’t be taught as much as the other things.

Though he finds it hard to talk about what makes him special as a soccer player, he can discuss without hesitation what he will remember as his best moment during his collegiate career.

HIGHS AND LOWS

“It was the MPSF Championship game in 2003,” he described. “We were playing New Mexico for the title--loser doesn’t go to the NCAA Tournament. We were down 1-0 at halftime and then came out in the second half, scored three times and won 3-2.”

Though he wasn’t officially credited with scoring the goal that sent the Spartans up 2-1 in the game, Pender remembers the goal exactly as it happened.

“I scored off of my back,” he said. “It was a free kick and the guy that was playing me and I both went up for it. He grabbed me by my jersey and spun me around so hard and so fast that the ball hit off of my back and went into the goal when the keeper came out to make the play.”

After that happened at the end of his sophomore season, he said he considered his entire junior season in 2004 to be one big disappointment.

“We just didn’t finish games,” Pender said, shaking his head at the memory. “We had talent and team chemistry, and we never really got blown out, except for the one game against New Mexico. Even though we only had five wins, all of the games were close--we just didn’t get it done at the end when it mattered.”

FINISHING A GREAT CAREER

That was certainly not the case with the Spartans of 2005. If anything, it was the opposite. Pender said he wanted to bring his discipline and experience to his role as team co-captain. Pender said that his experiences taught him to not take his college playing days for granted because they go by so quickly.

“When you’re a freshman, you think you have so much time because you think college is so long,” he said. “I knew that when I was a freshman I took it for grantedI thought that if I wasn’t starting, I had so much time to get a starting spot. Now that my career is over I want to let these guys know that when you’re not starting you need to work even harder.”

Pender’s teammates honored him at the completion of the 2005 season by selecting him as the team’s Most Valuable Defensive Player. He was also named a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation all-conference Honorable Mention.

“Dylan has really become the epitome of a steady, reliable player for us,” St. Clair said. “He was one of only three players on our 2005 team that started all 19 games. Everybody respects him and he earned that in the trenches the past three years.”

His mother says that Dylan’s work ethic has been an innate part of her son’s even-keeled personality. She recalls an instance when Dylan was 8 and she decided to replace the aluminum siding on her home. While her older son got bored after a few hours, Dylan stayed right by his mother’s side and helped her, carrying the metal to the side of the street, until they’d finished the job.

“He’s never been afraid of work,” Hilary Pender said.

Now that Pender’s collegiate playing career is over, ending with the Spartans’ 2-1 defeat of Sacramento State on the road Nov. 13, he’s spending a lot of time trying to figure out what’s next for him.

“It’s hit me that I may never play a competitive soccer game again,” Pender said. “Now I have some choices to make. I’ve thought about my options. I could go Europe and try to play soccer in Germany. Or I could go back to Chicago and start working, hopefully as a real estate broker. Whatever decision I make will take me down very different paths. I have to decide what path I want to take.”

In the end, Pender says that he knows he wants a flexible job that will allow him to return to his other passion, skiing, and be able to do that for several weeks out of every year. More certainly, he also knows for sure that he wants a family once he gets himself financially set in a few years.

“I want a lot of kids,” he said grinning. “I’ll be the soccer dad with the minivan.”

Pender said that several years from now, when he’s become the dad in the minivan and his competitive playing days are the stuff of San Jose State record books, he only cares that people remember him for being a nice, honest, and trustworthy guy.

Though there may not be stats to prove it, Pender will likely be remembered for just that.