MARSHALL, MO. – The season started off rocky. The Drover men lost their season opener. A few games later, they were 2-2. But then it all changed.
A week before the regular season ended, the Drover men had already clinched the regular season Sooner Athletic Conference title. They want on to claim the SAC Tournament Championship as well.
The championship earned the Drovers their third NAIA National Championship bid in three years, and the team is preparing to take on No. 8 Missouri Valley in the Opening Round on Saturday.
“I feel as this has been the best preparation and season for us. But at the same time, I think this is going to be the most difficult game,” said Sam Shaddick, team captain. “We’re just going to have to go in a give it our all.”
Between performances against common opponents and watching film, Coach Jimmy Hampton said Missouri Valley mimics USAO in many ways.
“I think the matchup is spot on. It’s a pretty equal match up,” Hampton said. “We’re probably a spitting image. We could be looking in a mirror.”
Similarities include style of play, tactical outlook and the fact that most of the team consists of international students, Hampton said.
To add to the likeness, both teams took on Division II Lindenwood midseason and ended up outshooting their opponents but losing 2-1.
“I think on the men’s game, it’s who puts their physical stamp on the game,” Hampton said. “We need it to be very physical. If we can do that we’ll OK.”
Not seeded this season, the Drovers drew a tough, highly-ranked team, but Shaddick said the underdog mentality may play in the Drovers’ favor.
“We’re expecting a good team, obviously; they’ve been highly ranked all season,” he said. “At the same time, we’re coming into the game as underdogs. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain and that’s how we’re going into it.”
Teammate Niall Crick agrees that the competition will be stiff.
“We expect to see the toughest challenge we’ve seen so far, and that’s the way we’re preparing for it,” Crick said. “But we always have confidence in our own abilities going into any game.”
The Drover men pulled out of a USAO parking lot at 5:30 Thursday morning and made the eight-hour trip to Missouri. The team will have almost 48 hours to settle in before the game begins at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Win or lose, the team will head back home to Chickasha shortly after the game ends and plan to arrive overnight Sunday. The winner of Saturday’s game will move on to the 2011 NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship final site in Orange Beach, Ala.
As a senior, Crick said the national tournament games are different for him this season and he plays as if he won’t get the chance again.
“I’m just going to try to cherish every game I play for USAO, knowing that each game may be my last,” he said.
Fans can watch the live feed of the game for free at http://www.livestream.com/vikingsportsnetwork.
Shaddick said the team will play like they have each game and each practice of the season.
“We’ll take the attitude we have had all season and go in as underdogs,” Shaddick said. “If we do, I think we have a good chance to causing an upset in the opening round.”