ORANGE BEACH, ALA. – After starting the season 2-2, the Drover coaches and players found the right fit for success and the Drovers are playing for the second year in a row in the NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship Second Round.
The Drovers defeated ninth-seeded Missouri Valley last week to earn their spot at the final site in Orange Beach, Ala. Their next test is Azusa Pacific, who entered the tournament eighth seed and tied for 15th in the country. The game is set for noon Tuesday.
“We actually may have a bit more of an advantage on the football side, but we’ll have to work with their speed,” USAO Coach Jimmy Hampton said of Azusa Pacific. “But they are definitely a school seeped in tradition … A powerhouse so to speak.”
APU is no stranger to the national tournament. The Cougars found themselves in the title game three times before capturing the win in 2007. They nearly won the title the two years previous, but lost in 2005 in regulation and in 2006 in penalty kicks.
Unlike last year, when the Drovers earned their first second round berth, Hampton said he and the players feel more like seasoned vets this go around.
“I would say it’s easier from a stand point that it’s not the unknown this year. It’s a calm, from the top down,” he said. “We know we have a good side. We work hard, and we know everything will fall as it should.”
Senior defender Chris Lee agrees that even though the tournament is just as exciting this year, the experience is slightly different.
“Last year, we were nervous coming in,” Lee explained. “We aren’t as nervous this year, but there’s still pressure to win. It’s one and done here. There’s no room for complacency.”
But not everyone on the squad has been here before. The Drovers have a few starters who weren’t with the team in Orange Beach last year, like newcomer Kalokwera Okot, who scored both USAO’s opening round goals to send the Drovers to Alabama.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this. It’s one of the best experiences of my life so far,” he said. “I think we can go all the way.”
Nervousness, he said, is an important part of the game.
“It’s good the feel nervous,” he said. “Don’t be scared of losing, but don’t be afraid to win either.”
APU beat USAO’s conference rival Oklahoma Baptist 2-1 early in the season. The team is full of American kids, unlike USAO, but Hampton said he thinks the teams will match up well.
“Probably my biggest worry is can we match up against them on the defense in the set pieces,” he said.
A slow start
After a quarterfinal appearance in 2010, the Drover men were determined to find their way back to Orange Beach this season.
But four games into the season, the Drovers were 2-2 and the thought of a repeat appearance seemed farther and farther away.
“We felt we had the pieces in August,” Hampton said. “After four games, we were more perplexed than we had things figured out … then we figured it out. We got it right at that point and went 15-2.”
Hampton said he and the coaching staff finally put in place which players worked best with which players and how to organize this particular team. But once it clicked, the team is capable of the best season in school history.
If the Drovers can push past Azusa Pacific, they will likely face defending champions Hastings, who defeated the Drovers in the opening round in 2009.
“We want a crack at Hastings,” Hampton said. “We want to play the best.”
But this season has already had one victory for Hampton and the rest of the coaching staff, he said, because he has seen the players grow and mature throughout the season.
“I think regardless of what happens, you’re proud to see that,” he said. “It’s a good group.”
The Drovers have kept a strong work ethic all season to get where they are and that’s something that hasn’t changed all season.
“We always work hard. It doesn’t matter who you play. Anyone can beat you on any day,” Lee said. “But we know we are as good as anyone here.”
The Drovers made history for the school is 2010 making it all the way to the quarterfinals, definitely something they’re keeping in mind this time around.
“Can we go a step further this year?” Hampton said. “We’d like to take an extra step.”
Watch the game
The NAIA will present the game live online. To watch the live video, click here. There is a $9.95 single game viewing fee.
For students and fans in Chickasha, the USAO is hosting a free watch party in Station 82 of the Student Center on USAO’s campus.
The championship is a single-loss elimination tournament. If the Drovers win on Tuesday, they will play again at noon Wednesday.
For more information on the tournament, click here.