It sometimes takes Jason Garey 10 attempts before his call goes through to his parents' home in Gonzales, La. When he finally hears a voice on the other end, he is told about the destruction to his neighbors' property, about his relatives from New Orleans who scrambled up Interstate 10 to take refuge in his family's house, about the general misery in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The University of Maryland soccer star has been trying to prepare for the fourth-ranked Terrapins' opener tonight at Cal State Fullerton followed by Sunday's encounter with No. 2 UCLA, but catastrophic events in his home state have become an understandable distraction.
"You just have to pray for the best and hope the death toll doesn't keep climbing," he said this week. "It's been pretty worrisome."
Gonzales (population 8,200) is about 20 miles from Baton Rouge and 50 from New Orleans -- beyond the main brunt of the storm but well within the danger zone.
"My house is all right right now, my neighbors' house had a lot of damage," Garey said. "A lot of my extended family lives in New Orleans and is at my house now. They're not sure what they're going to go back to. They're pretty sure their houses are completely ruined. It's been a tough time for south Louisiana."
Garey's cell phone is through a Louisiana exchange, so family members have had as much trouble contacting him as he has had trying to call them. He practiced with the Terrapins all week, but had other things on his mind.
"It was [a distraction] on Sunday night when it was coming ashore," he said. "I didn't sleep much Sunday night, and Monday I was still pretty worried because there were pretty high winds at my house. I was worried about my friends, but as far as I can tell, they're alright."
Garey and Coach Sasho Cirovski are planning a fundraising campaign for victims through the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
The 21-year-old senior forward hopes he can soon turn his full attention to a season in which the Terrapins will once again attempt to overcome their shortcomings in the final four. They have lost in the College Cup semifinals the past three years and four times in the last seven seasons, including a sudden-death overtime defeat to eventual champion Indiana last December.
Cirovski has had 11 consecutive winning seasons and has sent 21 players to MLS, but that NCAA title remains elusive. Maryland hasn't won a national championship since sharing the 1968 crown with Michigan State.
"The incredible success of the last three years and yet the lack of the final fulfillment has got me juiced up," he said. "It's very important to me and very important to the program and all the players who have played here before that we crown ourselves with the national championship. But I don't think in any way, if it never comes, will it diminish what we've accomplished here.
"I'm a competitive person and I'm going to put everything I can into it to make sure that one day we do hold a national championship trophy. I hope it's very soon, I hope it's this year."
Garey's scoring prowess will be among the key elements to the Terrapins' drive. After being among the nation's leading scorers last year with 22 goals and nine assists in 25 matches, he briefly considered turning pro before deciding to return for his final year. He will earn his degree in finance in December and will be eligible for the MLS draft in January.
Cirovski has a strong group of returning midfielders and defenders, but needs to find an attacking complement for Garey and a replacement for longtime goalkeeper Noah Palmer. Marc Burch, a transfer from Evansville, could be the answer up front, while senior Craig Salvati (three career starts) and freshman Chris Seitz (California high school player of the year) are vying for the starting job in goal.
"I think about [winning the NCAA title] every day," Garey said. "Hopefully, with a little bit of luck, we will get past that hurdle that we've been stopped at for three years."