Ryan Sailor played in just two games, for a total of three minutes, during his first three seasons on the Washington men’s soccer team.
Now, three seasons later, he is the Pac-12 defensive player of the year and is one win from finishing his collegiate career in the College Cup, soccer’s version of the Final Four.
The Huskies (16-1-2), the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, can earn that berth – which would be the program’s first ever — at 5 p.m. Saturday when they host No. 10 seed Saint Louis (16-0-4) in an Elite Eight matchup at Husky Stadium.
They know they can count on Sailor, a 6-foot-4 defender, to do his part.
“He’s the success story that we love,” UW coach Jamie Clark said of Sailor, a sixth-year senior who earned a degree in political science last year. “He came in and redshirted, didn’t play as a sophomore, but really worked at his game, grew physically, started to understand the system better and has just become a lockdown defender. He is a true success story.
“It’s not like the guys who succeed from Day 1 aren’t, but the guys who have to work a little harder at it, and then become really good, you really appreciate it.”
After his redshirt season, Sailor got into two games the next season, then didn’t play at all as a third-year sophomore. But a change in attitude set him up for future success, capped by becoming the third straight Husky to win conference defensive player of the year after Ethan Bartlow and Charlie Ostrem received the award the past two seasons.
“I never gave up hope, for sure, but my mindset kind of changed,” said Sailor, who went to Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado. “After a couple of years, I started to let myself have fun and enjoy it more – just take the pressure off — and that in turn helped me play better. And the more I did that, the more connected I was with my teammates.
“Jamie always told me this was in my range of outcomes, and all the other coaches gave me that belief too. I never lost faith, and I’m definitely glad to be here.”
Sailor saw action in 11 games — starting two — as redshirt junior, then had a breakthrough season last spring. He scored four goals, was named second-team All-Pac-12 and helped UW reach the Elite Eight for the second straight season.
This season was even better for Sailor. He tied with Dylan Teves for the team lead in regular-season goals with six — mostly on set pieces — and was tied for second in the Pac-12. He is the first Husky defender in more than 20 years with double-digit career goals.
“I would trade them for wins,” Sailor said of his goals. “All I care about is helping my team win, and if scoring a goal is going to do that, then obviously I am going to go for it.”
Sailor’s defense has also been stellar.
“He’s become a quiet giant,” Clark said. “He mops up everything around him. The guys respect him because he handles his business and he does it low key — he’s not consumed with awards and trophies. He just wants to be really good at what he does and everyone — coaches and players — appreciates a guy like that who takes cares of his business on a daily level.”
Teves has scored as many goals in two NCAA tournament games as he had all season, scoring all of UW’s goals in a 3-1 win over Portland and a 3-2 win over Indiana that has earned the Huskies a third straight trip to the Elite Eight.
“Dylan and I would joke about (how we were tied in goals scored), and then he has two games where he doubles his tally and my tally, and it’s pretty funny,” Sailor said.
Washington and Georgetown are the only teams to make it to the final eight three straight seasons.
In 2019, Georgetown scored two late goals to beat UW 2-1 in the Elite Eight, and Pittsburgh beat UW 3-0 last year with a trip to the College Cup at stake. Both of those games were away from home.
“Being there the last two years is going to give us great experience,” Sailor said. “We’ve been there before and we know what it feels like to lose in that game. We can take so many lessons and apply it to this year, and our team morale is incredibly high. We are super confident.”
Clark said playing at home this week will make his team comfortable “in a good way,” and he is hoping for a large and loud crowd to help boost his team against Saint Louis, the only unbeaten team in the country.
Sailor said it would mean a lot to be part of the first UW team to reach the College Cup.
“It would be the culmination of so many things we have done right over the last couple of years,” he said. “It would feel great to put the program in a better place than where we found it, and that’s what the goal is.”
Sailor aspires to play professionally, but that can wait. He is laser-focused on the moment. One that is six years in the making, and one that is happening because he never lost faith.
“It’s taught me to embrace all the challenges, and that everything is worth it in the end,” Sailor said. “You go through all the valleys and it makes the peaks sweeter. I think it has given me a greater appreciation for everything we have done this year.”
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