MARSHALL, Mo. – The Drovers have been here before -- they know what to expect and they know what is expected. Most importantly, they know the stakes are high.
The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma men’s soccer team prepares for the fifth straight NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship Opening Round in a location now familiar to the team – Marshall, Mo.
The No. 11 Drovers (15-4) made the 500-mile trip to (20) Missouri Valley College (12-4-4) the Opening Round. Game time is set for 4 p.m. Saturday.
“I feel good. We had a good week of training. While we are not what I would call and older team, we are a veteran team,” USAO head coach Jimmy Hampton said. “We have a lot of guys with experience and while they are excited to play, I don’t think the excitement will get to them.”
The Drovers are looking for a win and a fourth straight trip to nationals final site in Montgomery, Ala., while the Vikings are hoping to come out victorious for their first trip to Alabama.
“Every position is key for the game,” senior Perry Sansford said. “We just need to do what we’ve been doing the whole season, keeping clean sheets and controlling them on the field, working as a team.”
Sansford said that even though he’s attended – and won – the NAIA Opening Round each year at USAO, this year is a bit different now that he’s a senior.
“This could be my last game wearing a USAO shirt. Hopefully, that won’t be the case,” he said. “I don’t really tend to think about it. I just try to play the best game I can every single game.”
Both teams are strong offensively and have faced tough opponents throughout the season.
“They are a very good team. They are probably very similar to us. I think it’s an evenly-matched game,” Hampton said on Friday. “As I look at their team, they are well-coached, well-organized and a very talented team. In a game like this, it’s really whoever makes a mistake … which team shuts down for two seconds. I think that could be the difference tomorrow.”
In total, 32 teams are fighting for 16 spots at 55th annual Men’s Soccer National Championship final site, where 15 final-site contests will take place Dec. 2-7 at the Emory Folmar YMCA Soccer Complex.
Missouri Valley competes in the Heart of America Athletic Conference, which sees four teams in the national tournament.
“They play in one of the toughest conference in the country,” Hampton said. “They are probably battle tested. I would like to think that we are as well. I think they are very much like us in the sense that they get at you. They’ll get 20-25 shots a game, and so do we.”
USAO’s Stephen Owusu injured his MCL in the SAC Championship. While he’s been cleared to play, Hampton said his health also will be a factor in the game.
The Drovers come into the game on a hot streak, winning the last 11 games in a row after starting the season 4-4. USAO has shutout its opponent the last four games, including the entire Sooner Athletic Conference tournament.
“Losing the four games brought us back to reality, and we had to start from scratch,” Sansford said. “It worked, to be fair.”
A Familiar Face
The Drovers arrived in Marshall on Thursday night and had their first practice on the game field the following morning.
“The boys looked lively. The boys looked fresh,” Hampton said. “The kids that have been here; they will be quite comfortable. They remember. When we trained today, it brought back some memories.”
Two years ago when the Drovers faced MVC, USAO came out on top thanks to two second-half goals by now-junior Kalokwera Okot. USAO keeper Bryan Byars had nine saves in the shutout.
“It’s still a different team with different dynamics,” Hampton said. “Every year is different. You can’t compare two years ago in any shape or form … It’s just another brand new game this Saturday.”
Sansford said the location and whether the Drovers have faced a team before aren’t factors to him when he steps onto the field.
“It doesn’t mean anything. For me, we can go anywhere around the country and just play whoever. We just have to be ready for it,” he said. “It’s not different to me at all. They’re a completely different team, and we’re a completely different team.”
Opening Round History
USAO is one of 19 teams to be making back-to-back tournament appearances. In fact, it is USAO’s fifth consecutive time in the opening round. The Drovers have won it the last three years.
They are 3-1 in the Opening Round and 5-4 in the National Championship Tournament.
USAO in the only school in the Sooner Athletic Conference and one of only two in the state to receive a bid to the tournament.
The 32 Opening Round teams are comprised of 23 automatic qualifiers—which earned berths by winning conference, independent and unaffiliated grouping tournament or regular-season titles—and nine at-large teams—selected by the final Modified Ratings Percentage Index (MRPI), announced Nov. 17.
USAO earned its trip to the Opening Round with the Sooner Athletic Conference Championship, while MVC received the at-large bid No. 7.
According to the NAIA, opening round hosts have a combined record of 40-28-8.\
The Vikings have been to the Opening Round the last three years and are 0-3 in the national tournament.
Watching the Game
With schools known for high numbers of shots, Saturday’s game could be an intense one for fans.
“I think you’ll see two similar teams getting at each other in offense. It’s going to be a good game to watch for fans,” Hampton said.
Admission tickets for those traveling are $7 for general admission or $3 for students with a current and valid student ID.
For those fans who are local, USAO will be hosting a watch party at game time in Station 82 in the Student Center, weather permitting. USAO Reslife will provide drinks and snacks for those in attendance.
Fans also can watch the game online for free thanks to Missouri Valley sports information. Watch the game!