CHICKASHA – A winning tradition is set for the men’s soccer team at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, and the 2014 season brings high expectations and high stakes.
In an NAIA preseason poll released this week, the Drovers were in the No. 17 spot, which is where they finished the 2013 campaign. It is the fifth year in a row USAO has appeared on the preseason Top 25 list.
Additionally, the Drovers were picked to take the Sooner Athletic Conference for the fifth year in a row.
“It creates a tradition of success and a highly competitive environment when you step onto the field as a USAO men’s soccer player,” Head Soccer Coach Jimmy Hampton said.
In 2013, the Drovers won 11 of their last 12 games, stomping through the SAC regular season and tournament with just one conference loss. The Drovers finished the 2013 campaign with a 15-5 (9-1) record.
In 16 years coaching USAO, Hampton has led the men’s team to an overall record of 210-83-14. The Drovers have been to the NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship tournament each of the last five years, and this year’s goal, Hampton said, is to return and make a run for the title.
“We want to continue the route to the national championship; it is an expectation,” he said. “There’s probably a bit more pressure on the new kids coming in to live up to the previous successes.”
The 2014 team is composed of roughly half newcomers and half returning players. Key returners include NAIA All-American and SAC Player of the Year Liam Madden and the Drovers’ record-holding goalkeeper Bryan Byars.
Madden, a junior from Scotland, was tied for first on last year’s team for total goals with 10 and led the squad in assists with nine. Byars holds nearly every goalkeeping record in school history and is already tearing into national records entering his senior year.
Also, three other Drovers who earned All-Conference honors last year will once again take the field for USAO — midfielders Kalokwera Okok and Niall Burley and forward Stephen Owusu.
Together the three players were responsible for 12 goals and 10 assists in 2013.
Hampton said it is hard to tell so early on which newcomers could prove to be big contributors this year, although many are expected to see significant playing time early in the season.
Two standout newcomers, however, are sophomore forward Mikkel Rathsach from Denmark, and Josh Gibson, a freshman from England, Hampton said.
The athletes began practice on Aug. 12, and Hampton said the team had been focusing on fitness and endurance to best prepare the team to turn around and play almost immediately.
Additional focus has been on tactical work and team building to help the players learn to work as a unit and to play for one another.
In their first preseason exhibition less than a week after the players checked in for the year, the Drovers topped Oklahoma Wesleyan, a team ranked fifth in the NAIA preseason poll, with a 3-1 final. The Drovers also face NCAA Division I Oral Roberts at 5:45 p.m. Friday before the season starts.
The Drovers open up the 2014 season on the road at Bethany College on Aug. 28. The Drovers have one other away game before their home opener against Our Lady of the Lake at 3 p.m. Sept. 5. Full schedule
Following the home opener, USAO will host an Alumni Game to give former athletes a chance to one again don the Drover uniform. The alumni game, as well as the home opener, is free and open to the public.
Fans who can’t make it out to the Drovers home games this year can watch them live for free online here.