Above photo courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- For the UMHB women’s soccer team, the annual regular season meeting with Hardin-Simmons always holds a special significance. That not only stems from the rivalry between the two schools themselves, but also because of the two opponents’ past history on the pitch.
Despite several close contests-four of the last five meetings have been decided by a single goal- the Crusaders have not been able to defeat HSU, the winner of 18 straight ASC titles, as a Div. III program. But UMHB head coach Barry Elkins has reason to believe that will change on Saturday, when the Cru hosts the Cowgirls at 5:00 p.m. CT.
“It does have to be said that in a rivalry, there’s usually some back and forth,” Elkins said. “We still have to get over the hump. I believe we’re there. I think our kids know it. It’s gotten to be much more about winning the soccer game as opposed to beating Hardin-Simmons.”
Part of that confidence stems from the fact that the Cru has already played eight of its 10 ASC matches, building up to the contest against HSU. Since falling to ETBU on the road in the conference opener, Elkins’ squad is 6-0-1, holding second place in the ASC standings.
“Having it late in the season, it just means a lot more,” Elkins said simply.
“It truly means something as far as hosting the conference tournament,” he added, “even though we need a little bit of help from McMurry on that last day. If we can win this game, that gives us a leg up in the hosting of the conference tournament.”
Hosting the conference tournament was a goal the Cru set at the beginning of the season, right along with winning the ASC title itself. It is the pursuit of that goal that has kept UMHB focused on the final two matches of the regular season, rather than looking ahead to postseason opportunities.
“Our preseason goal was to win the conference,” Elkins said. “Everything else comes from winning conference. So if that’s the case, then our preseason goal is also to host the conference tournament, because that gives you a big advantage. So the present is, ‘We have to win this soccer game to be able to accomplish both of those.””
Heading into the match, the Crusaders are led by junior forward Maria Rico, who leads the ASC in goals scored (12). Rico opened the year without a goal in UMHB’s first two contests, but since that point has found the back of the net in eight of the Cru’s last 12 matches.
“She was at the top of the ASC last year, so this is just a continuation of where she was,” Elkins said. “She’s come in and been able to score goals. She had a little bit of a slow start. It wasn’t lack of effort, things just weren’t going her way. Lately, that’s all come into play and things are going her way.
“I think she’s in a good frame of mind. She’s figured out how she fits and plays in our system. We play with three forwards instead of two, and she was a wing player as a freshman. Now, she’s more centralized and can go where she sees fit. She’s grown into that role.”
With Rico leading the offensive attack, opportunities for other players have also opened up. 14 different Crusaders have found the back of the net this season.
“She’s not a secret to anybody anymore,” Elkins said of Rico. “She’s able to take that focus and still be able to perform. But it also takes the pressure off of some other players. Other players are able to perform around her given that she’s the focal point of, I would say, a lot of other teams. You have to know where she is.”
While the offense has been key in UMHB’s success this season, the Cru have also had help from a strong defense. One of the critical aspects in the defense has been the play of goalkeepers Ainsley Westlake and Reagan Williams. Both freshmen, the duo has combined to allow just six goals over 14 matches. Entering the season, depth at the goalkeeper was a question, considering four-year starter Emmy McMaude had graduated.
“Both of them have rotated their way through,” Elkins said of the two goalkeepers. “The impressive thing is, coming in as a freshman is hard enough, but coming into an established team that had an established goalkeeper, the expectation is a little bit higher. They’re both good people. That means a lot when you’re talking about the team setting.”
For the majority of UMHB’s matches, Westlake and Williams have split the playing time almost evenly. This strategy employed by the coaching staff has not been limited to the goalkeepers, however. After dropping the ASC opener to ETBU, Elkins and his staff decided to play two sets of players, taking advantage of depth that was cultivated during the spring season.
“We really changed our philosophy a little bit,” Elkins said of the way the Cru responded to the ETBU loss. “Our team is very deep as far as the players we have, and one of the things I did was basically run two different units. The starting unit and then the unit that comes in. They play close to equal minutes. That is because the second unit was doing very well, but also it gives you the ability to say, ‘You have to play hard for 25 minutes and then you get to take a break.’ Our work rate has almost doubled since the loss at ETBU.”
The Crusaders will look to use that depth to their advantage on Saturday night, as they aim to defeat HSU for the first time as a Div. III program.
“A little bit of this year is losing how we did last year, and having that feeling is something we don’t want again,” Elkins said Friday. “So it does mean a little bit more this time around, specifically to this group, because they felt like they did a good job in the game to win it, and we all feel like we played well enough to win it, but HSU pulled it out in overtime. Credit to them, but it doesn’t take away that feeling. So for the majority of my team, that was their last taste of Hardin-Simmons. Tomorrow means something.”