Young FHSU soccer team making strides in spring

Rick Peterson Jr.
Hays Daily News
Fort Hays State's Blake Arndt celebrates after converting a penalty kick against NSU.
Fort Hays State's Agustin Meza celebrates his goal in the second half of the Tigers' 2-1 win against Northeastern State on Friday at FHSU Soccer Stadium.

With a roster comprised almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores, Fort Hays State coach Gerry Cleary knows there will be some learning moments for the Tiger men's soccer team. 

But Cleary is just glad his young Tigers are finally getting the opportunity to grow from game experience. 

After being unable to play in the fall because of the pandemic, the Tigers are playing a limited spring slate with six games in the regular season, plus the possibility of two more games in the Great American Conference Tournament. 

Fort Hays has just one upperclassman on the roster in senior Antonio De La Torre. The Tigers have 17 freshmen on the roster including seven in the starting lineup. 

"As I said to them, 'Make a mistake, but don't make the same mistake twice,' " said Cleary, who is in his second year at FHSU. "They're going to make mistakes because they're freshmen. But we've been managing every game so far, so it's awesome that they got to play, because they've been working hard since August. 

"It's good for the future of our program."

The Tigers picked up a big win on Friday at home, scoring two goals in the second half and holding off a late push from Northeastern State to notch a 2-1 win at FHSU Soccer Stadium. 

Fort Hays moved to 4-1 in the spring and now sits alone in second place in the GAC standings. 

Cleary said the Tigers' approach to the shorter spring season is the same as it would have been for a fall season. 

"We're playing at Fort Hays so everybody wants to beat us and we're getting everybody's best shot," Cleary said. "These lads are learning what it means to wear a Fort Hays jersey."

After a scoreless first 45 minutes with the RiverHawks, the Tigers had no trouble creating opportunities in the second half. 

Agustin Meza put FHSU on the board at the 49:49 mark off an assist from Kevin Black. Meza's shot deflected off  Northeastern State goalkeeper Niklas Kirhoff but rolled into the back of the net for Meza's first goal of the season.

"Kevin's wiry, dangly," Cleary said. "He pressed their center back, who coughed up the ball, and Meza just did what he's done in training for the last two weeks and put it home. It was good for him. He's been working hard."

Blake Arndt then gave the Tigers a crucial insurance goal after converting a penalty kick at the 62:39 mark. 

The RiverHawks (3-2) made things interesting late after Flynn Semmerling knocked in a penalty kick with 7:25 left in the match. 

NSU had a flurry of chances in the last couple of minutes but FHSU goalkeeper Kieran Brown and the Tiger defense kept the RiverHawks from finding the equalizer. 

"When they started pressing us we were able to break their press and Kevin and Blake could get some space in behind them," Cleary said. "They had to chase the game. We knew once the game was getting closer and closer to finishing there would be loads of space. We should've scored three or four, and then we let them back in it and it's just chaos."

Fort Hays State outshot Northeastern State 21-8. 

"They sort of played into our strengths because they played long," Cleary said. "... We were organized back there, and the keeper did really well."

The Tigers will have a chance to tie Rogers State (4-0) for first place in the conference when they travel to meet the Hillcats on the road next Saturday in Claremore, Okla. The Tigers will host a semifinal match in the GAC Tournament if they finish in the top two in the conference standings. 

"We want to try to win a conference championship and we want to try to do it here; we don't want to go back to Rogers State," Cleary said. "We've got to take care of business next week. We need to add games. If we win next week, we'll play a semifinal and then we need to add a final. They need to do what this program does and that's win championships."