MONTGOMERY, ALA. – On a rainy morning in Montgomery, Ala., the USAO Drovers suffered their first loss of the season and ended their tournament hopes as they fell to Belhaven University 2-1.
“We wanted to go all the way, of course we did. But value the journey … we value the opportunity to play on the stage,” Coach Jimmy Hampton said to his players after the game. “The experience is what matters -- that you got the opportunity to do it. Maybe we fell a little short but maybe that makes you want to come back.”
The Drovers, who end the season 14-1-4, had not recorded a loss all season. It is one of the Drovers’ best records in school history.
“You’ll go down as one the best teams in school history. You are who we will talk about some day,” Hampton told them. “You guys were a good group this year. You played hard; you played well. We are proud of you.”
The game, which kicked off at 11 a.m. Tuesday, was the Drovers’ third trip to the NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship Second Round. It is the fourth year in a row the Drovers have qualified for the national tournament.
While the game stats favor the Drovers, it was Belhaven who had more luck finding the goal. Just seven minutes into the game, Belhaven’s David Major knocked one right into the goal off a corner kick by Loic Miliani to give the Blazers a 1-0 lead early.
The Drovers fought tough, spending a lot of time on the attack after that. Freshman Stephen Owusu subbed into the game and less than a minute later scored USAO’s only goal of the game. Perry Sansford, who had started, passed the ball straight to him, and he after some controlling, whizzed it by the Blazers’ keeper to tie the game.
The game went back and forth for the next 25 minutes. At halftime, the Drovers had outshot the Blazers 8-7, with both teams shooting just one shot on goal.
The second half saw more shots on goal and two saves by USAO keeper Bryan Byars before Belhaven’s Giovanni Correa slid one in with just 12 minutes left in the game.
The Drovers were not able to strike back and fell 2-1 after 90 minutes of play.
USAO outshot the Blazers 19-14 in the game. Byars had two saves whereas Belhaven’s keeper Carl Blundell had five.
“I think the biggest thing is you learn from it and move on ... How can you be happy if you don’t win it all? You can’t, but you can be proud of what you accomplished,” Hampton said. “And look forward to another opportunity. Look forward to making it a bit farther.”
Hampton urged the players to remember to put the game into perspective and remember they are a student-athlete first.
“That to me, if every kid graduates and is successful … that’s the most important thing,” he said. “Soccer is icing on the cake.”
The young team says goodbye to just one senior, Kris Andrews.
“He’s left the program better. He’s been to the national tournament all four years. He’s the only guy in USAO history can say it,” Hampton said. “We appreciate everything Kris brought to the table in his four years.”
The tournament is single elimination, so the loss sends the Drovers back to Chickasha with the season over. Belhaven advances to the NAIA Quarterfinals.
“I’m proud of you. You guys had a great season,” Hampton told his players. “I’m proud of you. I wish it had gone another way for you.”