Need a Game-Winning Goal? Call Cal at UCF

On a cloudy, overcast early November Friday night in Orlando, UCF senior men's soccer striker Cal Jennings takes the field about an hour before kickoff.

His blondish, light brown hair pulled tightly back, he exchanges short passes with a soccer ball with classmate Jonny Dean.

As the Knights continue their purposeful warm-up, their star draws a handful of photographers and videographers recording his every move.

It's Senior Night, so Jennings is joined on the field pregame by his family as he receives a framed jersey with his name on the back. His usual half-smile remains on his face.

During most of the night, he sits in wait on the offensive end of the field, waiting for an entry pass from a teammate that he can turn into a one-on-one goal-scoring opportunity. Maybe he'll take advantage of a mistake or errant pass by an opposing goaltender or defender.

Jennings doesn't figure in the scoring, but Gianluca Arcangeli's game-winner with five minutes left in regulation against second-place Memphis guarantees the Knights at least a share of the regular-season American Athletic Conference title (and, more importantly, the ability to play host to the semifinals and final of the postseason tournament on their home field).

There's a trophy, plus T-shirts and hats all around, in the postgame scrum.

Jennings takes it all in stride.

It's simply the latest achievement in a UCF career that has played out way more fabulously than Jennings and the Knights ever could have imagined.


#1: "Cal Jennings heads one in to start whitewash of Stetson."--October 4, 2017

Jennings barely recalls the first time.

As game-winners go, this one was fairly routine.

In the 18th minute of a nonconference home game versus Stetson during his sophomore season in 2017 he headed one into the net. Two minutes later he scored again and the Knights were on their way to a 4-0 victory.

#2: "Jennings' second goal late enables Knights to defeat UConn."--October 21, 2017

His second was a bit more dramatic. It came in the 72nd minute of a game at Connecticut and accounted for the winning tally in a 3-2 contest (he also scored in the third minute that night) that handed the Huskies their first league loss of the campaign.

#3: "Jennings strikes early to begin shutout of Florida Atlantic." --October 24, 2017

#4: "Overtime goal by Jennings hands UCF #2 AAC seed."--November 4, 2017

His first golden goal came two weeks later in a game at Cincinnati. UCF won it 2-1 in overtime on Jennings' 94th-minute score from 18 yards out to clinch the number-two seed in the upcoming AAC Championship. It also extended the Knights' 2017 unbeaten streak to seven matches.

For an average college soccer player, that might have comprised a career highlight.

For a good player, it might have been the first of a handful.

For Jennings? He's now had so many game-winners he has lost track of them.

#5: "Two quick strikes by Jennings key hat trick versus Liberty."--August 31, 2018

#6: "Jennings notches only score in UCF win over West Virginia."--September 7, 2018

#7: "Jennings scores two more in 3-1 triumph at FIU."--September 11, 2018

#8: "Hat trick by Jennings dispatches Stetson."--September 15, 2018

#9: "Jennings' tally starts shutout of SMU."--September 26, 2018

#10: "Another Jennings hat trick triggers rout of FGCU."--October 16, 2018

Six more as a junior in 2018, good enough to lead the AAC and rank fifth nationally.

#11: "Jennings' late goal tips #6 North Carolina."--September 1, 2019

#12: "Opener by Jennings starts shutout of VCU." --September 13, 2019

#13: "Jennings' pair sparks rout of FGCU."--September 18, 2019

#14: "Early marker by Jennings begins blanking of South Carolina."--September 20, 2019

#15: "Jennings slides in game-winner four minutes into OT versus FAU"--October 1, 2019

#16: "Jennings completes Knight comeback with double OT strike off post."--October 29, 2019

Six more (tied for the NCAA lead) for the senior in 2019, as the Knights head into NCAA Championship play this weekend seeded ninth, ranked eighth in both major polls and just a week past standing third in the NCAA RPI. UCF Sunday night plays host to a second-round NCAA match between the winner of unbeaten Missouri State and Denver.

The Knights lost a 2-1 road game on opening night at Wake Forest (the number-four NCAA seed) and then didn't lose any of their next 16 games—going perfect in that category in September (6-0-1) and October (5-0-1). Along the way to 14 victories to date, UCF has claimed three of those in a single overtime and three more in double overtime. The Knights' 16-game unbeaten streak marked the longest in program history (UCF began playing varsity soccer in 1975).

That first UCF loss came Aug. 30--and the second came Saturday night vs. SMU in the AAC title game. The Knights' 14 wins in between are their most in a season since finishing 15-1 in 1976.

An overtime win at Cincinnati Nov. 5 clinched the outright AAC regular-season title (at 6-0-1) for UCF. It marked only the third time in AAC men's soccer history (seven seasons) that a team has finished the conference slate unbeaten. It qualified as the first time a UCF men's soccer team finished a league season unbeaten since 1980 when the Knights were members of the NCAA Division II Sunshine State Conference.


The last two Jennings game-winners this fall have come in dramatic fashion—in overtime (the 94th minute) to defeat Florida Atlantic and in double overtime (the 101st minute) off the post to dispose of Stetson.

His 16 career game-winners lead all active NCAA men's players. The AAC record is 22 by Connecticut's Abdou Mbacke Thiam (2015-18). He currently ranks second among active players in both total points (104) and goals scored (44).

Early on, the Roswell, Georgia, product was good enough to start nine games as a UCF freshman in 2016 (the Knights finished 5-11 that year)—his lone goal coming in an overtime loss to Memphis. As a sophomore, he added seven goals on a UCF team that improved to 8-6-2.

Says UCF head coach Scott Calabrese, "Cal had played as a striker in his youth soccer career, but we had another player at that spot who was pretty successful so we moved Cal to the wing for his sophomore season."

Back at striker as a junior in 2018, Jennings earned first-team All-America recognition (United Soccer Coaches) after helping the Knights lead the country in per-game shots and shots on goal.

He took exactly 100 shots (52 on goal), with 20 of those finding the net. He led the NCAA in shots per game (5.56) and finished second in goals per game (1.11), shots on goal per game (2.83), total goals (20), total points (45) and points per game (2.5).

He paced the AAC in virtually every offensive category, breaking the single-season league records for goals and points. On his way to the AAC Offensive Player of the Year honor (an award he won again in 2019), he also was a semifinalist for the Missouri Athletic Club's Hermann Trophy (soccer's version of the Heisman Trophy). His three hat tricks (Liberty, Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast) set the stage for UCF's first regular-season AAC crown. All of that came on a team that finished 13-3-3, enjoyed a 10-match unbeaten streak and played in the second round of the NCAA Championship.

In 2019 Jennings has three times as many goals (16) as any other UCF player and has totaled 36 points, good for NCAA ranks of fifth in total goals and seventh in points. That level of success came against a UCF schedule the NCAA rates as the 19th most difficult in the nation. He became the fourth player in UCF history to hit the 40-goal mark in a career, thanks in part to another hat trick Nov. 13 in the AAC Championship semifinals versus Temple.

The 2019 Knights' NCAA Championship invitation marks the first time for consecutive appearances in that bracket by UCF since 2010-11. UCF has fallen to SMU in the AAC title game each of the last three seasons (2017-18-19).


Jennings' UCF career has been an evolution.

After also considering Wofford and Mercer, the 5-foot-11 Jennings came to UCF in great part because of a relationship he built with former UCF assistant coach Joel Tyson, who had originally recruited him as a Wofford assistant. Tyson just finished his first season as head coach at Wofford.

"I wasn't overly or highly recruited, but I came here and ended up loving the team and loving the school," says Jennings.

"I was confident this was the right place for me. We did not do too well my first year, but they ended up getting the right coach in here and you see what he's done with the program. I've been really happy with the way they've helped me develop."

That new UCF head coach was Scott Calabrese, who took over after Jennings' rookie campaign.

Calabrese candidly recalls the challenging scene he and his staff inherited, with the Knights having endured three straight losing seasons, with the last NCAA Championship invitation coming in 2011.

"We did not know for sure what to expect with Cal. When we started training and tried to get ideas on what this group was about, who in the group could play what position and what qualities they had, it was very hard initially to see where these players would be," he says.

"It was the spring and we were not fit or sharp. In some ways we were starting from scratch.  Training was different. Initially we could not see Cal's potential."

As Calabrese recalls, much hinged on an end-of-freshman year meeting with Jennings.

"Honestly, Cal initially could not cover the ground--the physical requirement of a football player where you have to be able to work for 90 minutes.

"You have to produce high-intensity actions, dribbling at someone and beating them, sprinting behind someone to receive a pass, sprinting to close someone down. Then you have to be able to handle these high-intensity engagements and then quickly recover from these actions and do it again and do all this over 90 minutes.

"That's an engine that is required—Cal at the time did not have that."

So Jennings went home for the summer and went to work—and when he returned to campus he was a different player.

Says Calabrese, "He clearly put in a massive amount of work away from us to develop the capacity to do the work required.

"It's 100 percent about getting yourself in shape, in soccer shape. It's an intermittent sprint sport. We had a formula for him in terms of how you train--it's not just running long distance, especially at his position where your ability to be explosive is key in those moments. 

"He came back in the fall and was instantly effective and dangerous and was creating a lot of opportunities for others from the wing. He would come inside really quickly and get on the end of crosses. He probably could have double the amount of assists had we been a bit more clinical in front of the goal."

Jennings enjoyed his time on the wing in 2017, yet he says, "I've always been a little more comfortable playing closer to the goal."

Calabrese and his staff hatched plans to make their standout even more effective.

"As a junior, we said, 'Let's try him as the nine (the striker position)—that's going to put him in front of the goal even more.' And he had a really successful junior year," the UCF head man says.

"With his increased capacity to do work and to understand the position, both the attacking side and the defending side, we had to put him in the nine slot."

And Jennings flourished.

"A lot of my success is a credit to the team—the coaches brought in the right pieces," he says. "When you keep the ball you typically have the ability to create more chances. A lot of finishing is confidence and I got my confidence back after my first year. I scored a bunch of goals in my youth soccer career, so I knew I could do that."

That 20-goal season opened the eyes of UCF opponents.

"I try to stay focused and do the little things right," Jennings says. "If I do draw more attention it should open up other players. So if I can be more unselfish and free them up, I'm confident they will finish, too."

Calabrese appreciates the way Jennings can impact a game.

"The teams we play obviously know what a threat he is—they scout him and look at how he scores goals and now they are better prepared to deal with him.

"But he's still going to score goals. He has this real good understanding of when to move into these dangerous areas in which, if we can deliver the ball in there and he times it right--which he does often, he's going to be the first one to the ball.

"If another team puts a lot of emphasis on defending those areas, that's the cue for other people to move into other areas and we have to be able to convert those chances. Because you cannot defend it all. Cal is really efficient with the opportunities he gets—the most efficient on our team."

As much as Jennings may enjoy the adrenalin rush from scoring a goal, he appreciates how far he has come in other areas.

"For a striker, hold-up play is very important," he says. "When the ball is coming in you have to be able to hold off the defender. Then my movement has to give teammates a chance to find me. But defensively is where I've grown the most—understanding how to defend with others, how to press and create other opportunities where the defense isn't set up and it's easier to attack it.

"A lot of my job is pinning the back line. The higher I can do that the more we keep the center backs honest and give our midfielders chances. Part of it is being patient."

The Knights boast an eclectic roster, including a handful of emotional, vocal players. Even-keeled Jennings is the other extreme.

"We have a good balance of emotion and energy," he says. "I've always kind of been a little laid back, but they know I'm going to give it my all when I'm out there."


In retrospect, the self-effacing Jennings came to Orlando on something of a wing and a prayer. The Knights' below-.500 seasons during the period in which he was recruited to UCF suggest his journey to Orlando was something of a leap of faith.

But Jennings was a believer, and the Knights quickly turned around their fortunes once Calabrese took over beginning in 2017.

And, with that, Jennings, Calabrese and the rest of the UCF squad have become legitimate national championship contenders as Jennings' final year with the Knights winds down.

His on-field exploits well-documented, Jennings is one of 10 remaining candidates for the Senior CLASS Award in men's soccer. An acronym for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School®, the Senior CLASS Award focuses on the total student-athlete and encourages students to use their platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities. To be eligible for the award, a student-athlete must be classified as an NCAA Division I senior and have notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition.

Jennings majors in nonprofit management and minors in sports business management and will graduate in December (a semester early). He is a four-time member of the AAC All-Academic Team, earned a spot on the President's honor roll at UCF and is a CoSIDA Academic All-America nominee for 2019 (he recently was named to the all-district team).

The humble Jennings seldom celebrates his own achievements, preferring to divert credit to his teammates and coaching staff. He leads by example--taking UCF's newcomers under his wing and showing them the ropes of the team culture--and is consistently one of the last to leave practice.

Jennings' volunteer contributions have come at the Tim Tebow Foundation Night to Shine and with the Orlando City soccer program. He was an intern with Athletes in Action, an organization that strives to help coaches, players and staff grow in faith-based relationships.

Says Calabrese, "How he has dealt with his success has been really impressive. It shows what a strong-minded, grounded, humble young man he is.

"He's not carried away by it. He knows he must continue to work hard--he knows he can continue to get better. He honestly and authentically credits his teammates for getting him the ball in these positions so he can score, and he wants to help the team in that way.

"He values everyone's contributions—he does not hold himself above anyone. You see that in subtle ways. Walking off the field, he's carrying cones and pinnies (scrimmage vests) to the equipment shed—and that's one of the reasons he will continue to be successful.

"He understands the genesis of his success. It's character that will allow him to get better and work hard and not get carried away."


On that same November night in Orlando where the Knights celebrated their soccer seniors, a single musician played the National Anthem on a saxophone, as Jennings and his teammates looked on.

Savvy UCF fans understood there was another potential virtuoso performance yet to be viewed that same evening.

Adds Calabrese, "Cal is very positive--and a positive mindset in a great player makes him a great model for our young players. It's contagious and infectious.

"You have a guy getting a lot of attention, a lot of credit, and he has every right to complain if he makes a great run and we don't get him the ball. His response is, 'We'll get the next one.'

"He truly is a great teammate in every conceivable way. He just understands it."

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