BELTON, Texas- Covid-19 canceled the spring for the UMHB men’s soccer team in early 2020, and nearly a year later, winter storm Uri did something similar, postponing the first two conference matches of the season.
Head coach Brad Bankhead and his team were eager to battle Concordia (TX) in this untraditional spring slate, considering it was the Tornadoes that ended the Cru’s 2019 season (the last season the team played, as soccer is a fall sport) winning 1-0 in the ASC Tournament. But Bankhead never expected to be facing Concordia to open up ASC play, and frankly, Concordia is a challenge in itself, not to mention the fact that he has to get his team back into shape after not practicing for 11 days.
“It’s an odd time right now, coming back,” said Bankhead. “We felt like we were in a rhythm, in a groove, the guys were playing well, then we were locked in for 11 days. We did not practice for 11 days after our last game against Ottawa. Coming back, now you’re preparing for Concordia and you’re also now trying to get the guys’ legs back, and their lungs open. It’s been a real tricky couple days of practice to prepare and get back what you lost.
“I do feel like our guys are excited about the opportunity to play against Concordia again,” continued Bankhead.”It’s been so long. They ended our season in 2019, and I know the guys want another chance at it. But I’ll be real honest with you, all of our conference games are important, and we want our guys to have a lot of energy but we don’t want emotions to take over.”
That’s the way it has been, and things seem to be trending in that direction more than anyone would like lately. But as Bankhead spoke with True To The Cru in early February, he was just happy that his players would have the chance to play at all.
“We’re excited about it, and our boys are itching to play,” said the head coach, who is in his 14th year at UMHB. “Excited is probably not the right word. Anticipating, eager, consciously optimistic [probably describe our emotion towards the season]. We don’t what all it is going to look like but we’ll be ready.”
They definitely demonstrated that by their play on the pitch during the Cru’s two non-conference matches, defeating division two Midwestern State in a 1-0 contest on the road to open up the 2021 spring slate. Two days later in Belton, a crowd of 178 witnessed a back-and-forth battle between UMHB and NAIA Ottawa University Arizona, as the match ended up being pushed into double overtime and won on a goal by Brody Conley.
Through those two contests, junior forward Patrick Roach established himself as a consistent shooter, scoring a team-high three goals on 10 shots.
“Patrick is playing really well, he’s a tough opponent to play against,” said Bankhead. “In a 90 minute game, Patrick will probably play 70 minutes. So you’ve got him running at you, he doesn’t stop, and he’s a threat anywhere around goal. He can score, he can assist, but more than anything, what we like about him most, is he runs at people, defends hard, and doesn’t let up.”
Aiding in the offensive strength of the Cru will be midfielder Nick Villanueva and Conley.
“Between Patrick, Nick and Brody, they really are the engine of the team,” said Bankhead. “They’re invaluable to the program, so we’re going to rely heavily on those guys to give us chances to score goals.”
Though playing a conference schedule in the spring is uncharted waters for Bankhead and his team when it comes to college soccer, his entire team is used to playing in the spring, as the UIL classifies it as a spring sport. In fact, Bankhead has liked the idea of playing in the spring, from the standpoint that his newcomers are given more time to develop and get acquainted with college.
“If years down the road, if this stays, where we play in the spring, I probably wouldn’t be too upset with that,” said Bankhead. “I don’t like the weather right now, but for development, for newcomers and freshmen, [it is better to play in the spring] as opposed to a week of training and then we play a game, and they don’t know Coach Bankhead well, they don’t know our style well. I think now, they’ve had a full semester plus some, to really get acclimated to the environment, to UMHB and the school part of it, and most importantly, connecting with upperclassmen and upperclassmen learning to play with them. It’s been a real advantage for us.”
As the old saying goes, “the freshmen today are the seniors tomorrow”. The future of the program lies in these newcomers, so while all D3 athletes were given an additional year of eligibility this season, many of them will not return for the fall. Bankhead did note that due to certain players’ degree paths, they would still be on campus in the fall and remain on the team, but he spoke of attending college “for the right reasons”.
“To be real honest with you, we’re not encouraging our guys to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility. When we recruit these guys, we want them here for the right reasons, and that is to get a degree. We appreciate them, we love them, but they’re here to get a degree.
“One guy graduated in December, Tyler Childs,” said Bankhead. “He’s been a three year starter and he lost his senior year. But he’s going to dental school and of course we don’t want him delaying dental school for one season of soccer.”
With the two non-conference games having allowed the Cru to feel the atmosphere of a game for the first time since that loss to Concordia in 2019, Bankhead’s team is more than prepared and ready for its 7:30 p.m. duel in Belton with the Tornadoes on Wednesday. Barring any cancellations, the Crusaders will play seven ASC matches this spring, facing Concordia and Howard Payne twice.
With the conference split into two regions, East and West, for this spring, UMHB was picked to finish second in the ASC Preseason Poll, just behind, you guessed it, Concordia. Hardin-Simmons, who always seems to play the Cru close, will visit Belton to close out the season on March 25.
“Every game, with so few games that we have, every game is vital and really critical for our standings. If we’re No. 1 in the West, we get to host [the semifinals and finals of the ASC tournament], so it is really important that we take every game really seriously and we can’t drop a match.”