Breaking New Ground with Cameron Iwasa
Over summer, Cameron Iwasa decided to grow his hair out alongside his best friend. After multiple quips about his shaggy hair from teammates, Iwasa promised to get it cut it following the team’s first loss. Little did the Sacramento native know that he wouldn’t be able to touch his hair for another month.
Most recently, Iwasa became the first Anteater to be selected as a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, an annual award recognizing the nation’s top female and male collegiate soccer players. Over the course of his four-year career, the senior co-captain has played in 85 matches, tying the record for most appearances alongside Amani Walker. With 22 career goals, the 5’10” forward is just the 11th player to reach 20 goals, ranking an all-time ninth best in the record books.
“I’m extremely proud. In my four years we made the NCAA tournament three times, we won the Big West twice — it’s really been a great career for me,” said Iwasa, who religiously eats a chicken pesto sandwich from Which Which before each game. “It’s more than I can imagine, it’s more than I really expected when I came in.”
Despite falling to Cal State Fullerton off penalty kicks in the finals of the Big West Tournament this season, UC Irvine was still able to earn an at-large selection into the NCAA Tournament. After cruising past University of Nevada Las Vegas in a 3-0 rout, Iwasa and the Anteaters traveled up north to Palo Alto for a showdown against Stanford on Nov. 22. Coming off the heels of their first Pac-12 championship in 12 years, the Cardinal were listed at the top of every poll in the nation despite being listed as the tournament’s sixth seed.
Stanford wasted no time in setting the tempo of the game, dominating possession for the majority of the game and exerting significant pressure on the Anteater defense. UC Irvine’s backline held steady, turning away each attempt mounted by the Cardinal and forcing the game into overtime.
In the 97th minute, sophomore midfielder Michael Sperber suddenly forces a turnover. Dribbling the ball down the field, he spots Iwasa positioned at the top of the Stanford penalty box and slips him a pass through two defenders. Intercepting the ball amongst three converging defenders, the senior forward turns and spots Sperber continuing his run unchecked. With a deft flick of his toe, Iwasa slides the ball through to the streaking midfielder. In a prime position to score, Sperber capitalizes, shooting the ball underneath the outstretched arms of Cardinal goalie Andrew Epstein and into the bottom right corner for the upset to send the Anteaters to the Sweet 16.
Alongside the rest of his teammates, an overjoyed Iwasa tackles Sperber to the ground in a tight embrace as the players celebrate their victory. For the first time in program history, the Anteaters had defeated Stanford. Amidst all the noise of how strong the Cardinal looked that year, Irvine’s victory was validation that the team belong amongst the nation’s elite.
“For us, it’s all belief, it’s all about us. We don’t care about who we’re playing, we know if we show up and if we play our game we can win any game. So, that was the mentality, let’s show up, let’s show ‘em who UC Irvine is. It’s not about Stanford,” Iwasa said.
In a career that has spanned two Big West regular season and tournament titles and three NCAA tournament appearances, Iwasa has appeared in a total 13 post-season games, the most in program history. Considering Iwasa has been an indispensable part of the team’s success the past four years, it is difficult to fathom how the team would have fared had Iwasa chosen to pursue a collegiate career in baseball instead.
With an abundance of energy as an adolescent, Isawa stayed active by involving himself in a litany of sports. By the age of 13, the future Anteater narrowed down his extracurriculars to just soccer and baseball. Hoping to earn an athletic scholarship, Isawa enrolled at Jesuit High School, a college prep renowned for producing Division I athletes. As part of the program’s developmental system, Iwasa spent two years playing junior varsity baseball and soccer before moving up to the ranks of varsity.
Though the soccer team won the conference and section championships his junior year, Iwasa could not share in the same amount of joy experienced by his teammates. Frustrated by his limited minutes, he resolved to push himself harder.
“The egos kind of go out the window when you’re sitting on the bench. You kind of got to swallow your pride a little bit,” said Iwasa. “You can go one of two ways. You can decide you’re not good enough and give up or you can decide you’re gonna work harder and prove them wrong.”
In direct contrast to his mediocre season in soccer, Iwasa enjoyed a phenomenal first year on the varsity baseball team. Not only was the dual-sport letter winner a starter on the diamond, but he finished the season with a slew of all-first team accolades. Following the end of the school year, Iwasa ascended to even greater heights with his club team during summer, winning the state championships and qualifying for the Seattle regionals.
Enjoying a considerably greater amount of success than he had known in soccer, Iwasa began leaning towards pursuing a collegiate career in baseball. At the conclusion of club baseball that summer, Iwasa resumed playing club soccer for the remainder of the season. Playing at a tournament hosted at UC Irvine’s Crawford Field, Iwasa caught the attention of assistant coach Mike Ditta who reached out to him. Receiving interest from a program as highly acclaimed Iwasa’s interest in soccer was rejuvenated. In his season year at Jesuit High, Iwasa would enjoy a breakout year on the soccer field, scoring 42 goals to lead his team to a perfect 31-0-0 record and another consecutive conference and section championship.
Maintaining contact with the assistant coaches at UC Irvine at the time, Iwasa accepted an offer to play for the Anteaters due to what the campus offered academically and athletically.
Literally jumping to an all-new playing field, the freshman recruit would have to work his way up from the bench once again.
“Coming in, my freshman year I was pretty much a nobody on the team. I really had to earn any minutes I got, which was very very minimum my first season. Fortunately I kept grinding away and by the end of the year I got six starts to finish off the season.”
One of those hard-earned starts came in the semifinals of the Big West Tourney against UC Riverside, where Iwasa scored the game winning 35 seconds into the game. The Anteaters would go on to capture the Big West Championship and advance as far as the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The following year, the Anteaters would be plagued by injury and were unable to field their entire list of starters at any point. They would fail to match the success they ascended to during the previous season, finishing with a record of 5-14-1.
In the wake of such a dismal year, the Anteaters came back in force, once again capturing the Big West tournament title and embarking on a postseason run that took them to the NCAA tournament’s third round. During a conference match up against Cal Poly, Iwasa would immortalize himself in Anteater lore by scoring the 1000th UC Irvine goal at Anteater Stadium.
“Everyone really saw how easy it is to let it slip and have a bad year. Everyone came in with a lot more focus and a lot more hunger for that year. I think it really showed and we had a really successful season. I think that down here we had really set the tone for us to bounce back.” said Iwasa.
At the start of his senior year, Iwasa and the Anteaters concluded their non-conference schedule without dropping a single game, achieving a new program high ranking of No. 3 in the process. Having defeated Stanford to once again reach the sweet 16, the squad harbored high hopes of defeating No. 11 Providence to advance to the Elite 8.
Within the first 10 minutes of the game however, tragedy befell Iwasa as he felt his hamstring give away. As someone who had never been injured his entire life, his first affliction could not have happened at a worse time. Bearing the pain, Iwasa managed to finish out the half, but was unable to return to the field in the second. Unable to help, Iwasa could only watch as the Friars scored a penalty kick in the 77th minute and held on to end the Anteater’s season.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more difficult experience during a game,” said Iwasa. “When I was subbed out, I was absolutely overcome with emotion.”
Though the Anteater’s post-season run came to a disappointing end, it doesn’t belay the fact that the team has raised the bar for what’s expected of the program. UC Irvine played a program best of 25 matches on top of matching the record of 16 victories earned by the 2011 squad. In his freshman year, Iwasa recalls how the prospect of winning the national championship had seemed like a pipe dream.
Now at the end of his senior year, it seems to be a matter of when, not if, the Anteaters will bring home a trophy. Having played soccer nonstop for the past 15 years, Iwasa has no plans of stopping as he looks to play professionally for Major League Soccer.
“I’ve always loved playing soccer. It’s been easy, for me it’s always been something easy to work for because it was fun to do so,” Iwasa said.
Having carved his name into the annuls of program history, there’s no debate that Iwasa is one of the most decorated Anteaters to ever don the blue and gold. However, despite all of his accomplishments and accolades, the collegiate standout does harbor one regret.
“Since my freshman year, I’ve always wanted to do a back flip, but I always just never really found the right opportunity,” said Iwasa with a laugh.