MONTGOMERY, ALA. – Leaving Thanksgiving morning to make the long trip to Montgomery, Ala., the Drovers are eager to get on the field to play in the NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship second round game.
“Attitude of boys is very good,” USAO head coach Jimmy Hampton said. “They are prepped and ready to play. We’ve been training very hard last four days. The boys ready to go.”
The Drovers kick off against 12th seed Belhaven University at 11 a.m. Tuesday. The game will be available online for a small fee, and USAO’s Drover Nation Spirit Club and the school’s Media and Community Relations office are hosting a watch party in Dusty’s on the second floor of the Student Center.
The watch party is free and open to the public.
“Belhaven is a very organized, well-coached team,” Hampton said. “One striker and two wingers in particular are top class going forward and very dangerous. They are top team coming out of one of toughest conferences in country with four teams in sweet 16.”
The Drovers (14-0-4) are the only undefeated team left in the bracket this year. The earned the second at-large bid.
Hosting the NAIA Opening Round for the first time in school history, the Drovers shut out Grand View University (9-8-2) from Iowa 2-0 on Nov. 17. It was the team’s 11th shut out of the season.
Belhaven, who entered the tournament 12th seed, defeated Tennessee Wesleyan(14-4-3) 5-0 in the Opening Round.
The Blazers are 15-4-1, and they have a history in the NAIA, having gone all the way to claim the title in 1992.
“I think we match up well, and I feel like we can give them a quality match,” Hampton said. “I think our depth will have to come into play and hoping we can make it a very fast 90 minute game. I think they will play bit more deliberate, and we will press the game.”
This is the Drovers fourth trip to the NAIA National Tournament and the third in a row to the National Championship final site. Kris Andrews, the team’s lone senior, has seen it all.
“I’m the only Drover in program history to go to every one, and I’m proud of that,” Andrews said. “This year, we think we can do well. We have just one goal, which is to win it.”
He said making it his senior year is particularly special to him because USAO’s graduating class from last season was one of the best the program had seen, and the Drovers had to come out this year to prove there was more great soccer for the university.
“This one is a little more special than previous years … we have to prove that we could survive without last year’s seniors,” he said. “It shows there is a lot of promise in the future.”
Niall Burley, a freshman from Warrington, England, said he’s excited to finally get to experience what the USAO veterans have been talking about all season.
“I’m excited, but nervous at the same time. I can’t wait to just play,” he said. “It’s a big deal. Everyone spoke about it but being here is a different thing … When you get here, you realize what it’s about.”
Despite the excitement surrounding such a big game, Hampton said he and the coaching staff will try to put the game into perspective for the players.
“We just want to be 1-0 on Tuesday and do the little things right and compete for entire game,” Hampton said. “But is just another game in the grand scheme of life, and we will tell them not make it any more than just one game that we will try to win.”
While the Drovers remain undefeated, they did not advance past the Sooner Athletic Conference Quarterfinals after tying Oklahoma City and falling in penalty kicks. The game went down as a tie for both programs.
Following that game, the coaches had the players turn in their gear, and Andrews said he worried that he wouldn’t suit up as a Drover again.
“We got a good taste of losing then, and it didn’t feel good,” he said. “Now, we are at the stage if we do lose, we are done.”
It isn’t easy to get to the round of 16 teams, Andrews said.
“It’s obviously great achievement. It shows the hard work we are all putting in is paying off,” he said. “This is the best shot we’ve had … we just have to take one game at a time.”
Keeping it one game at a time, and giving it your all for the entire 90 minutes of play is all Hampton will ask of his players.
“Last thing we tell them is to compete every minute for themselves, their teammates, their university and their families,” he said. “No matter what happens compete as hard as you can, and we will hold our heads high at the end of the game.”
NeuLion, the NAIA's official video-streaming company of 12 select NAIA national championship events, will be broadcasting all matches of tournament. Single day packages can be purchased for $9.95, while an all-tournament pass is available for $29.95. For more information is available here.
The winner of the game competes in the NAIA Quarterfinals at 11 a.m. Wednesday.