Above photo: Javier Zaragoza (left), Ben Allen (right). Courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON- There will be a changing of the guard when the UMHB men’s soccer team takes the field for its season-opening scrimmage against Hill College on August 17 in Belton. For the last 16 years, Brad Bankhead led the charge as the program’s head coach. But in May, it was announced that Bankhead would be moving to a new position within the administration as the associate athletic director, while longtime assistant Ben Allen was promoted into his first head coaching position.
It is an honor Allen has not taken lightly. He understands the tradition, the pride, and the successful foundation of UMHB soccer, both on and off the pitch. He was a Crusader once too, playing on Bankhead’s teams from 2007-2010, before returning as the assistant prior to the 2014 season.
“I’ve been trying to remember other coaches and the things they implemented,” Allen told True To The Cru weeks after being promoted to head coach. “Honestly, all I remember is Coach Bankhead. Obviously, we’ve been a special program from the time when I played until now. I think it’s a pretty decent formula for winning. It’s a good culture.”
Allen added that he does not expect to make “wholesale changes”, but there will be some tweaks heading into the 2022 season that the coaches began discussing from the time when last year’s magical undefeated run through conference play ended. And there will be a new face on the sidelines as well.
Javier Zaragoza, a senior goalkeeper on UMHB’s ASC-championship winning 2017 squad, was brought back to Belton as the assistant coach in July.
“If you walk around here, his face is everywhere,” Allen said of Zaragoza, noting his accomplishments within the program. “It’s great having him back here. He is super passionate, very loyal.”
“It was special coming back to Belton,” Zaragoza said. “My wife and I love it here. We love the community.”
Zaragoza’s background differs from the vast majority of assistant coaches. For one thing, he will have the title of “Dr.” added to his title at some point in the near future, as he is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Health and Human Performance from Oklahoma State. In fact, for the previous four years, following one year as a volunteer goalkeeper coach for the Cru, Zaragoza has held a number of notable roles related to exercise and sports science. This past summer, the San Antonio native worked with Clemson University as an Olympic Sports Science intern and prior to that, served as the Head of Sports Science for the OSU women’s soccer program.
“I got my master’s and was a volunteer coach in 2018, then went to Stillwater for continued school,” Zaragoza said. “That is the path I thought I was going to take, in higher education. When this door opened and Ben called me that he got promoted, it was a little tug in the back of my head and slowly but surely, I felt this was the right move.”
But he is not leaving his sports science background behind in his new position with the Cru. In fact, it is the opposite. His knowledge base in that field should add to UMHB’s analytical strengths, as he noted that he sees the sport “from a different lens” than some.
“It’ll be just trying to get the most out of our guys, whether that’s nutrition or using the GPS trackers for the guys, to monitor their player load and distances this year,” Zaragoza said. “Really just trying to maximize their performance, We’re trying to create a winning environment here, so any advantage we can get on other teams in our conference and in the nation is something we’re looking forward to doing.”
The duo shares a number of similarities, albeit from the fact that Allen’s collegiate career ended three years before Zaragoza’s began. For one thing, both made history with their respective teams. In 2009, Allen, a midfielder, scored three goals and played 911 minutes, contributing to the first team in program history to reach the NCAA Tournament. Eight years later, Zaragoza was part of the 2017 team, which claimed the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament victory in a 1-0 win over Willamette University.
“That was still early in Bankhead’s career and he was working on getting the culture right,” Allen recalls of 2009. “That spring [of 2009] after we had guys leave and a small group stayed, we really became close as a group.Starting the year off beating Trinity and snapping their five-year home winning streak, we knew that we had something special.”
“As Coach Allen was telling his story of 2009, there’s a lot of similarities to 2017,” Zaragoza added. “We had a great team culture, and it was a great group of guys. Everyone knew what the mission was. It all came together at the right moment. At the beginning, we lost three games in a row, then went on a 12-game win streak.”
It is that kind of culture that Allen and Zaragoza are working to continue entering the fall. And with the right mixture of chemistry and talent, there is reason to believe UMHB may make a return trip to the national tournament when it is all said and done. The Crusaders lost a number of key contributors from the 2021 squad that went 10-0 in ASC play, but a group of transfers and a stellar freshman class, along with the returning group, has the formula for success.
The freshman class includes two state champions, 10 All-District selections, four All-State honorees and four District MVPs. Highlighting the transfer group is 2021 First-Team All-ASC selection Daniel Lyon, who comes from Ozarks and played forward for the Eagles.
“Really I think that’s going to be our biggest task, to incorporate all these new players,” Allen said. “And that’s really in any team, any year. When you bring in a large recruiting class, you have to make sure they come together.
“Like Coach [Zaragoza] and I said, that’s what made those years so special; belonging to something bigger than yourself and enjoying the people you take that journey with. For us to continue that culture, and fit those new guys in and have them feel a part of our family is going to be really important.”
Guiding a team through a season as a first-year head coach can be a challenge, and if anything, a learning experience. But Allen and Zaragoza both agreed, they have an exceptional example to follow.
“As a program, we have a saying that we want to create great fathers, husbands and bosses,” Allen said. “For us, our mission is more than soccer. We don’t coach to win games. We’re both very competitive and want to win, but at the end of the day, we want to create better people when they leave. That was Coach Bankhead’s mission, first and foremost with this program. To have an impact on 18-to-22 year old kids, and make them men. My goal, and our goal, is to continue that legacy.”