BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – At 5:10 a.m. Thursday morning, a charter bus full of soccer players and coaches pulled out of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma parking lot and into a still sleeping Chickasha.
The players immediately went back to sleep, resting up for an intense weekend of practice and a National Tournament game in Brownsville, Texas.
Coaches received an at-large bid to the tournament late Sunday evening after thinking the season was likely over, and the team began practice early Monday morning. The men play the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College at 6 p.m. Saturday in Brownsville, Texas for the opening round of the 2010 NAIA National Tournament.
USAO lost in the semifinals of the Sooner Athletic Conference tournament to Oklahoma City University. At that point, the coaches and team saw their National Tournament hopes fade.
“It seems like it was all taken from us … and now we’re getting it back. You’ve got nothing to lose, let’s put it that way,” team captain Sam Shaddick said. “The guys are just excited to go.”
Shaddick said he got the exciting news that the men were in the tournament from defender Chris Lee.
“We just couldn’t believe it. The boys were running around,” he said. “I don’t think it sunk in until Monday morning when we first started practice.”
Coaches gave the team five days off practice after the semifinal loss, something Coach Jimmy Hampton said would have been essential regardless of when they would have known they made it to the tournament.
“We’re really ready to go,” he said. “We had a good week of training.”
SETTING A STANDARD
This is only the Drovers’ second chance at the National Title, having attended the tournament for the first time in 2009. USAO lost in Hastings, Neb., 2-1 last year.
Eager to go one step farther this season, the Drovers have practiced this past week with all their heart.
Freshman goalkeeper Wayne Simpson said the game has the same meaning to the freshman as the seniors.
“You’re expected the play at the level the seniors do,” he said. “We train like it’s our last as well.”
The team’s success in 2010 has encouraged the underclassmen to fight for similar chances every year, he said.
“Because it’s our freshman year … we want to be going to Nationals every year,” he said. “It’s challenging you to keep going every year.”
THE 2010 TOURNAMENT
Both Hampton and Shaddick agree the key to winning the game on Saturday is simply defense.
“It needs to be a low scoring game,” Hampton said. “We left a lot of goals at home.”
The Drovers are playing without three starters – Nikola Cakarevic, Dusan Rasovic, Gavin Otieno -- who did not make the trip.
“Our hope is that not having players here, we are able to rally the troops and come together as a team,” Hampton said. “Adversity does that sometimes.”
Shaddick said the importance of defense doesn’t just fall on three defenders and the keeper.
“We have to defend from the front,” he said. “It’s the first line of defense.”
The Drovers have three planned practices in Brownsville before they play Saturday night. It gives the team an opportunity to become comfortable with the environment and the artificial turf of the field.
Another thing that’s new to the players is the South American-style of play used by the UTB/TSU Scorpions. That style is isolated one-on-one play, as opposed to the European-style the Drovers are used to playing.
“We have to win as 11,” Hampton said. “The first 25 minutes is huge.”
Shaddick serves as one of the team’s captains, but he said his role as captain is easy in such a big game.
“In this game, it’s not that hard. The guys are motivated … They have to stay focused. They have to stay disciplined,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great chance.”
Win or lose, Simpson said it’s a great experience for him as a freshman.
“It’s definitely like a really good environment. It’s challenging and rewarding,” he said. “We’ve (the freshman) never done it before, so we don’t know how lucky we are.”
Published: Nov. 19, 2010