David Lucio, a senior midfielder on the Fort Hays State soccer team, compared the Tigers’ exit from the 2014 NCAA Division II men’s soccer tournament in the round of eight to a child having its Christmas presents stolen.
The Tigers were on the verge of advancing to the national semifinals for the first time in program history, but the chance vanished before the big day arrived. Leading Quincy (Ill.) 2-0 at halftime, the Tigers allowed three goals in the final 35 minutes and saw the Hawks advance.
This season, Lucio, an all-MIAA selection a year ago, and his teammates are focused on reaching the Final Four.
“We were like 30 minutes away from going through and we ended up losing,” Lucio said. “We just gotta be mentally strong, and I think we can get it done.”
Friday, the team will begin its attempt at redemption at the Northeastern State tournament in Tahlequah, Okla.
The Tigers face Missouri S&T in the season opener on Friday and former MIAA member Truman on Sunday. The Tigers and Bulldogs last met in 2012, so head coach Brett Parker isn’t sure what to expect from either of the weekend opponents.
Both schools compete in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, which channels into Super Regional 3, the same one as the Tigers.
“I don’t know a ton just going into the first weekend of the season, but the GLVC is a really strong league,” Parker said.
The coach added that the league has a reputation for producing strong and physical teams. While the Tigers will look to play a more uptempo brand of soccer, they expect to have a successful weekend.
“If we work as a team and do what we’re supposed to do, I don’t think we have a problem,” Lucio said. “I think we should get two wins this weekend. That’s what’s expected, not only from us but coach.”
Parker said avoiding ties and losses in winnable games, is the key for his team to continue the gradual improvement that the program has seen each year of its early history.
“We’ve always dropped a couple games that we shouldn’t, or tied a couple games we shouldn’t,” the only coach in FHSU mens’ soccer history said. “That’s the biggest key.”
The Tigers will be without one of their top scorers. Michael Cole, who scored seven goals and notched four assists in his junior campaign and earned all-region honors, will miss the opening weekend if not more. Although the senior played in the Tigers’ first exhibition game, he’s since re-aggravated a foot injury from the spring.
If there’s a position the Tigers can afford to be without one of its top players, it’s at the top. In recent years, FHSU has found success having a number of players capable of netting close to 10 goals in a season as opposed to one primary scorer, and Parker believes the roster is structured for similar goal distribution this fall even without a definite timetable for Cole’s return.
“It should be hopefully the same as last year with maybe a couple guys getting up closer to double digits,” Parker said. “You need that. You need someone that’s going to step up.”
The Tigers aren’t as deep or experienced in the back, but there’s a high level of confidence in the group that will handle the bulk of the minutes.
Michael Yantz begins his stint as the Tigers’ goalkeeper. While he hasn’t seen Division II action, he’s no stranger to a high level of play. The redshirt freshman was a finalist for Goalkeeper of the Year in the Premier Development League, the summer destination for many of the nation’s top collegiate players. His teammates and coaches have expressed a high level of confidence in the first-year keeper.
“He’s a great player,” Lucio said. “He’s shown a lot of improvement. You see he’s long; he’s athletic, and he’s quick. It’s hard to beat him.”
The back four protecting Yantz doesn’t have an abundance of experience playing together, but Lucio felt the new players have the ability to perform at a level similar to last year’s defense.
The Tigers begin the season ranked 14th in Division II. In addition to a run to the national semifinals, the team is aiming to capture the team’s first MIAA championship after finishing second the previous two years.