Tigers head south for regional

By KLINT SPILLER

kspiller@dailynews.net

When the Fort Hays State University men's soccer team fell 2-1 to Simon Fraser University, then ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division II, in the final match of last season, head coach Brett Parker said it demonstrated the Tigers could hang with the best teams in the country.

The Tigers (11-5-2) will have an opportunity to put that to the test Friday.

FHSU will play Northeastern State University (12-4-3) in the third round of the NCAA Division II Tournament at Doc Wadley Stadium in Tahlequah, Okla. Game time is 7 p.m.

It's the first national tournament berth in the program's 2-year history.

"We definitely deserve to be here," Parker said. "We are probably not the favorite going into the tournament and probably not even the favorite on Friday, but we get respect of the teams we play."

Though the national tournament is foreign to the Tigers, their opponent is not.

The River Hawks are a member of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association and have played FHSU four times in the past two seasons. So far, FHSU is 2-1-1 against them, and all of the matches have been decided by one goal.

"Northeastern is always a good game," said Tiger sophomore Tanner Brock, an All-MIAA first-team midfielder. "It's a rivalry of course. We'd like to play our rivals and beat them on their home field."

Though the matches have been evenly fought in the past, Brock said he feels confident in his squad.

"I think we are the better team, of course," Brock said. "... I think we have more experience and more heart."

Due to a limited number of teams in their region, the two Central region teams got a two-round bye. Now, there are only 16 teams remaining, which means FHSU is only three wins away from reaching the championship game despite not playing a game yet.

But Parker said he's not looking that far ahead.

"I'm just focused on Game 1 with it being our first tournament game as a team and a program," he said.

Because of the two-round bye, FHSU hasn't played a match since losing 2-1 in the first round of the MIAA Tournament to Lindenwood University on Nov. 1.

However, Brock said practices have been competitive the last two weeks and they've worked on their team defense, which has been a problem this season.

"We've been beating each other up in practices," Brock said. "I think we are ready to play a game."

Though FHSU leads the MIAA in goals per game (2.56), the team has allowed 1.39 goals a game -- a distant third in the league.

"With the way we are attacking and the way we've started to play defense, I think we are a better team," Brock said.

The Tigers have the advantage in terms of past wins and losses against NSU, but the River Hawks actually out shot FHSU in all of the matches.

In the four previous games, NSU posted 84 shots to FHSU's 39 in the four matches and 37 shots on goal to FHSU's 17.

"Maybe they have more shots, but we create better chances, I think," Brock said.

Parker said that statistic doesn't worry him, because it has more to do with their offensive and defensive philosophy and game situation. In each of the matches this season, FHSU got an early lead, forcing NSU to attack more.

"When you get an early lead, the other team tends to press a little more," Parker said.

Whatever the result, the Tigers are making history Friday.

"It is kind of overwhelming, I guess," Brock said. "This is our second year. We've never done anything like this before. It is making history, but I think we are ready."