For a Stanford University athlete hoping to study engineering or human biology, Derek Waldeck sure set his sights too low.
The Hart High graduate envisioned contributing for the Cardinal this season as a freshman men’s soccer player.
He didn’t see a starting role and a national championship on the horizon. But — after a 0-0 (5-4 in penalty kicks) win over national No. 2-seed Wake Forest in Sunday’s Division 1 NCAA final — Waldeck sits atop the college soccer world.
“It’s unbelievable. I feel like it hasn’t sunk in yet,” Waldeck, a midfielder, said by phone Monday. “I never would have imagined, as I got closer and closer to coming to Stanford, that in December we would be national champions. I never thought … I’d get the opportunity to start.
“I think it will take a couple days to sink in.”
There’s a lot to absorb: the national semifinal win on penalty kicks, then a deja vu ending in the championship on Sunday.
Waldeck, who started and played a career-high 102 minutes in the final, clung nervously to a teammate on the sideline in Houston as Stanford goalie Andrew Epstein saved a final Demon Deacon penalty kick to win the NCAA College Cup final and secure the Cardinal’s second straight national title.
Waldeck dropped to his knees in disbelief before sprinting onto the field to celebrate with teammates who “absolutely love him,” according to Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn.
“He’s established himself quickly,” Gunn told The Signal, “which is a great credit to him.”
Before heading to Stanford, Waldeck played for Hart during his freshman and sophomore years of high school, earning back-to-back All-Foothill League first-team honors.
Thrown into the fire, he was forced to mature quickly.
“Being a 14-year-old competing against other guys who were 17 or 18 years old my freshman year gave me the opportunity to further expand my soccer IQ,” Waldeck says, “because I had to find a way to be smarter than other guys who were bigger and stronger than me.”
Seeking another challenge, Waldeck left the Indians to play academy soccer for Real So Cal Soccer Club, based in Woodland Hills.
There, he continued developing what Academy Coordinator Terry Davila calls Waldeck’s greatest skill.
“His brain is very fast — very fast — and he has the technical skill to match it,” Davila says.
Waldeck’s father, Steve, is the athletic director at The Master’s University, but Derek says there was never any pressure to become a Mustang.
In fact, his older brother, Riley, plays for Biola University of La Mirada, TMU’s rival.
“My dad really wanted to put us first,” Derek says. “(He said) ‘It’s your college experience. We want what’s best for you. If it’s the Lord’s will that you go to Master’s, then that’s what we want. But if His will is for you to go somewhere else, we’re more than supportive.’”
Stanford appreciates the support.
The Cardinal found their starting lineup in flux this offseason after winning the first national title in the program’s 100-plus-year history.
Waldeck impressed in training camp and, after the first eight games, became a starter in the midfield.
He scored one goal and assisted on three others as a wide midfielder, providing a boost to the offense and sprinting back to reinforce the defense.
Gunn says Waldeck’s future lies at center mid or left back, but that the freshman’s touch and on-point decision making made him a fixture in Stanford’s 2016 postseason push.
The Cardinal didn’t allow a goal in their five tournament matches.
“Derek’s not somebody who is super flashy,” Gunn says. “He is someone who, when you watch him time after time after time, you realize what his greatest strengths are, and that’s his attitude, his wonderful first touch and the fact that he is a dependable person.”
Those attributes lead Davila to view Waldeck as a Major League Soccer prospect.
Gunn says any player successful at Stanford’s level has that potential, but it’s a matter of continuing to grow.
“The biggest attribute that dictates whether someone moves onward and upward is their attitude,” Gunn says. “Because if someone has the right attitude and right drive, they are always going to improve and keep getting better.”
“… I really believe in (Waldeck’s) attitude and (that he’s) someone who can continue to develop rather than fizzle out.”