Above photo courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- Brad Bankhead’s team has not even begun practice. And the Cru’s first match is just three days away.
Such is the nature of college soccer, often one of the few sports to begin play in the month of August, and the way scheduling works itself out.
Though the match, a Saturday night contest against Hill College, is only an exhibition, a “glorified practice” in Bankhead’s words, it is still listed on the schedule and will allow UMHB to face a true opponent for the first time this season.
“It’ll be an opportunity for us to see some guys right out of the gate,” Bankhead said when asked about the Hill College match. “They won’t have had a lot of practices yet, and as opposed to going after eachother, we’ll just line ourselves up against someone else.”
He added that, based on what the coaches see in the exhibition, they will have the chance to structure practices in the correct way to prepare to Crusaders for the official season opener on Sept. 1 at home against Texas Lutheran.
“It’ll be a great night, and then we can figure out from there what practices need to look like Sunday and through the rest of the week,” Bankhead said. “And it will allow some of these newcomers to showcase themselves.”
Bankhead scheduled a challenging non-conference slate for his squad this season, with multiple matches against top-tier SCAC programs, and a trip 1,500 miles northeast to the state of Pennsylvania. It will mark the first time since 2019 that the Crusaders have took the pitch against someone other than an ASC school.
“We’re excited about our schedule as a whole,” Bankhead said. “Opening up with Texas Lutheran here on the 1st, they’re a quality program, one of the top teams in the SCAC. They’ll give us a test to get the season kicked off.
“Certainly the trip to Pennsylvania will be a great opportunity for these guys to experience some soccer in the northeast and [face] two schools who have done exceptionally well.”
The quick trip north features two contests for the Cru. After opening the season on Sept. 1, UMHB travels to Grantham, Pennsylvania on Sept. 4 to battle Messiah College, a program that has won 11 national titles, the most recent coming in 2017.
Two days later, Lancaster, Pennsylvania hosts a match between UMHB and Franklin and Marshall College. Franklin and Marshall last played in 2019, and posted a record of 17-3-1.
“Messiah College, their history speaks for itself,” Bankhead said. “Over the last 20 years, they have been a D3 power. It’ll be an incredible atmosphere and they have a great fanbase and following on campus.
“Franklin and Marshall, back in 2019, went to the Sweet 16, and got beat on a placekick shootout. They’re a great opponent as well. We’re going to go up there and really get tested.”
Following the trip northeast, the Cru will host St. Thomas (TX), the SCAC runner-up during the spring season, and also travel to San Antonio for a tune-up against Trinity (TX), before ASC play begins.
UMHB’s first two matches of conference action are on the road, against ETBU on Sept. 23, and LeTourneau on the Sept. 25. Ozarks comes to Belton on Sept. 30, which is expected to make for a great match considering the recent history and close contests between the two.
During the spring, UMHB’s season was ended by Ozarks in a PK shootout during the ASC Tournament. While that may still be in the back of many of the returners’ minds, Bankhead said the focus is on present and all that the Cru did accomplish last season.
“More than anything, I think it’s fueled these guys, with it being a short turnaround [from the spring to the fall],” Bankhead said. “We have a chance to right the ship. But we’re not going to try to dwell on the brutal ending. We were a really good team in the spring. We’re going to be better in the fall.”
The Cru closes out the regular season with four straight home games, including matches against Concordia (TX) and Hardin-Simmons. That is a major advantage down the homestretch, considering that is the point in the season when ASC tournament seeding is decided.
“We were on the road so many times in past years to finish the season, playing at home in front of our home crowd and at our facilities is certainly our advantage, and a good way to cap off the season,” Bankhead said. “We hope we can continue that home series with some postseason home games. We feel like the schedule is set up for us to be successful.”
Most importantly, the Crusaders are looking forward to getting back to playing a complete fall schedule, allowing time for more development. Also, the NCAA Div. III tournament is set to be held Nov. 17-Dec. 12, with the four-team College Cup held in Cary, North Carolina, giving the Cru a postseason opportunity to work for.
Said Bankhead: “We like it back the way it always has been, playing right out of the gate.”