Beavers summon the winning spirit of soccer teammates who died

CORVALLIS Ñ The plaque, bronzed on flat rock, sits to the left of the stands on a patch of grass at Valley Stadium, a memorial tribute to Oregon State soccer's two lost warriors.

Stephen Hensor and Joe Zaher are gone. But they won't soon be forgotten, and they continue to provide inspiration to their former teammates.

Before every game, each player touches the plaque, which bears photos of Hensor and Zaher, the OSU soccer standouts who died within four months of each other last year. As the Beavers break the huddle before a game, they clasp hands and shout, 'Hens-Zaher,' an amalgamation of the departed players' last names.

Then they go out and win.

The 15th-ranked Beavers are 12-4 overall and 6-1 in Pacific-10 Conference play going into the biggest weekend of soccer in school history Ñ conference games at Fresno State today and at No. 1-ranked and defending national champion UCLA on Sunday.

'We have been saying 'biggest weekend' every week for a while, but it's true,' coach Dana Taylor says. 'We have to prove ourselves in Fresno, where we have never won. If we do that, then we will be playing for the Pac-10 title on Sunday.'

Imagine how strong the Beavers would have been with Hensor, a midfielder from Exeter, England, who would have been a senior, and Zaher, a midfielder from Las Vegas who was the 2002 Pac-10 freshman of the year and would have been a sophomore.

Hensor, an honorable-mention All-Pac-10 selection as a freshman in 2000, was stricken with cancer in 2001 and died on Aug. 30, 2002 Ñ the day of Oregon State's first game that fall.

Zaher was one of the top players on that OSU team, setting a school freshman scoring record and ranking third in the conference in scoring. On Dec. 1, eight days after the season, he was killed in his hometown when the car he was riding in hit a wet patch on the road and struck a light pole.

'I don't know too many young men who lose one person close to them, let alone two in four months,' Taylor says. 'But the guys have held up well. They have had a lot of professional counseling, and the administration sent us to Joe's funeral in Las Vegas. We have seven seniors who are playing this season for themselves, but truly they are playing for the guys who aren't a part of us anymore.'

Midfielder Christian vanBlommestein, a three-year co-captain, was Hensor's roommate and a friend of Zaher's.

'Steven was the most professional guy I have ever met,' says vanBlommestein, a senior from Tacoma who will start his 70th straight career game today.

'He trained perfectly, did his studies, was always the first player to practice and the last to leave. Nobody was more organized. I think about him every single day. Same with Joe. He was the kind of guy you wanted to hang with Ñ fun-loving. Not having them around is tough. You remember the good times and get through it.

'I learned a valuable lesson through all of this, one most people don't learn until they are 40 or 50,' vanBlommestein says. 'I look at life so much differently after losing two close friends. Before, I took things for granted. I appreciate things so much more now.

'This season is dedicated to them. Last season was dedicated to Steven. The younger guys didn't understand what was going on until Joe passed away. Then they found out what it was all about. And in the end, it became a big bonding experience.

'We are so close. That is the biggest thing this team has, a family atmosphere.'

After beating Cal and Stanford at home last weekend, the Beavers are on a six-game win streak.

'Year by year, we've moved up,' Taylor says.

The way they look at it, the Beavers have a little extra help from above.

'Every day, we keep those guys in mind,' vanBlommestein says. 'We say, 'This is for Joe and Steve.' We have 13 players on the field right now.'

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