CHICKASHA – After three NAIA National Tournament appearances in a row, the Drover men have a lot to aim for in 2012, but it could take a lot of work to get there, head coach Jimmy Hampton said.
“This group will have to make its own way with so many newcomers,” Hampton said. “We probably will go through some tough, tough growing pains.”
The preseason focus for the men has been on fitness and teaching the new players how to compete and what to expect out of the strong league.
While the Drovers only lost five starters, so many of the new players are young and still need to mature into college soccer. The Drovers could have some hiccups this season without four-year starters John Gardner, Sam Shaddick, Chris Lee, Niall Crick and Dusan Rasovic.
“They were not only quality players, but they were leaders of the team,” Hampton said of his graduated seniors. “We will count heavily on returners Scott Parkinson, Bryan Byars, Kris Andrews and Phil Pryor to lead the men.”
Andrews is the only senior on the team.
Hampton expects Ryan Clougherty, a forward from Scotland, and Niall Burley, a midfielder from England, to play integral roles immediately for USAO.
The Drovers ended the 2011 season in the NAIA Quarterfinals with an overall record of 18-5. They won the Sooner Athletic Conference tournament and regular season championships, earning a conference record of 9-1.
Preseason polls put USAO at the top of the SAC and seventh in the NAIA. Preseason polls are predominantly based on the previous year’s success.
“The worst thing we can do is compare the men’s team to last years group,” Hampton said. “That graduating class may go down as the most successful in Drover history. We have to make our own way, be coachable, and learn to do it the Drover way. If they buy into it, we can be there in the end.”
The Drover will have little time to adapt to the Drover way, as they start the season with two of the toughest teams in the league. First, they take on No. 2 Baker College. A week later, they travel to Tennessee to play Hastings College from Nebraska on a neutral site.
While Hastings isn’t officially ranked preseason, they knocked off the Drovers in the NAIA Quarterfinals and went on to end the 2011 season as national runners up. They were unranked only because their conference failed to turn in paperwork on time. They were expected to be ranked No. 2.
“To be the best you have to compete against the best, so absolutely we built this schedule for a reason,” Hampton said. “If we want to play for a conference or national title, we need to find out what it is we are not good enough at, and the only way to do that is to find those quality opponents. We learn a ton about our teams in tight matches, win or lose.”
Hampton said the goal was the same every year — to compete for a conference title and play in the NAIA National Tournament. Every team competing in the tournament has a shot at the national title, and that is exactly what Hampton hopes for each season.
The Drovers take on Baker College at home at 5 p.m. Friday. Fall classes at USAO begin Aug. 27.