Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- 572 days. 16 conference matches. And not a single loss.
The UMHB men’s soccer team scored twice in the second half of Saturday’s match at Ozarks, pulling out a 3-1 victory, and the success continued for the Crusaders, who have gone a year and a half without a loss in the ASC play.
Since dropping the spring regular season finale to Hardin-Simmons on March 25, 2021, the Cru proceeded to win all 10 in-season conference matches last fall. And now in 2022, even with a first-year head coach and a number of newcomers, UMHB is right back atop the ASC standings in first place, with a 5-0-1 record. That lone draw came in the ASC opener at LeTourneau two weeks ago. Saturday’s win at Ozarks made it five straight victories.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s home or away,” UMHB head coach Ben Allen said. “We preach taking it one game at a time. Our conference is competitive in that if you don’t come prepared, anyone can beat you on any given day.”
Hence why the 5-0-1 mark is so impressive. To go undefeated through six of the conference schedule’s nine matches is notable in a weaker conference, but in a league with so much parity, where five programs enter Thursday’s contests with a chance to claim the ASC regular season title, the record speaks volumes.
But as impressive as that is, the fact is that three matches still remain. Three very difficult matches against the league’s No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams. Then comes the ASC Tournament. The hope is that an NCAA Tournament berth, the program’s first since 2017, will follow that.
“We’ve been telling them that we are building into November and playing our best soccer at the right time of the year,” Allen said. “Some of the job is not done yet. We still have a ways to go in the year, and our ultimate goal is to make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.”
One season of success could be called a fluke. But two seasons, and that success cannot be overlooked. Picking up where former head coach Brad Bankhead, now UMHB’s associate athletic director, left off in 2021, Allen and assistant coach Javier Zaragoza have found a way to continue the momentum, leading a team guided by veterans.
“There’s a lot of similarities between last year and this year’s roster,” Allen said. “The main thing is, we were able to bring the majority of players back again this year. Being able to bring back our leaders has been massive for us.
“It really is a luxury to have so many seasoned players be a part of a 10-0 team and know what it takes to be successful, to really help bridge the gap of the new guys we have in and set those expectations for our team.”
That chemistry between the seasoned veterans and the newcomers has formed rather quickly as this season has played out. It is a characteristic important to any good team, on any level, but is an intangible quality. Good team chemistry cannot be backed up by statistics, but when seen on the field, it is relatively noticeable. Such is the case with the Cru.
“Our team chemistry is the best I’ve seen in my career here,” UMHB goalkeeper Dalton Lloyd said. “We enjoy coming out to train each day, competing with each other and getting better.”
There are few additional factors in that chemistry as well, Lloyd noted.
“I think the important thing is that all of the guys have a roommate(s) that are teammates and we all hang out together. This year we have gone to dinner, golfed, and gone bowling [as a team]. I believe that has a big impact on the chemistry of this team and what has helped us be so successful is working together as a unit.”
Playing as one unit, UMHB’s performances coming out of the locker room at halftime have been nothing short of incredible. In six of their last eight matches, the Crusaders have outscored the opposition over the game’s final 45 minutes. The 3-2 comeback victory over Trinity (TX) comes to mind as one shining example of this quality found in the ASC’s first-place team.
“We talked about, we have another 45 [minutes],” Zaragoza said postgame on the UMHB broadcast after the Trinity win, “if [Trinity] can put two in, why can’t we?”
In UMHB’s road matches this past weekend, at UT-Dallas and Ozarks, the Cru scored twice in the second half, paving the way to a 3-0 victory over the Comets and a 3-1 win in Arkansas two days later.
“I think our stat line for second-half goals is pretty lopsided,” Allen noted. “Some of that is we get settled into the game. Other teams start chasing the game a little bit and it opens things up for us, especially on the counter attack. I also think we have done a good job closing games out in the second half.”
That statement is backed up by the numbers as well. In four of UMHB’s six ASC battles, the opponent has scored in the second half of just two of those.
But as mentioned above, the road will only get tougher from here on out, and those second-half shutouts will be harder to come by. The Crusaders are ready, however, for the tests that await. And this week’s preparation is not that different from a mental standpoint. Sure, the upcoming opponents hold records more comparable to UMHB’s than other conference opponents the Cru have faced so far, but the mentality does not change. The focus paid towards each match, preached by the coaching staff since the preseason, has prepared them for the homestretch of the regular season slate.
“All of the guys know what we can achieve, however we go one week at a time,” Lloyd, who was named the ASC’s Defensive Player of the Week on Monday, said. “We know that we can’t win what we want if we skip over teams through the weeks. Coach Allen does a great job of keeping us focused on the game at hand and not looking too far ahead.”
History could be made on Saturday against HSU, as UMHB needs just two victories to claim consecutive regular season conference titles for the first time in program history. As Lloyd added, however, the home match against fourth-place McMurry must be won before Saturday’s duel can come to the forefront of the mind.
“For example, we know that we can secure first in the conference this weekend against HSU but we can’t do that unless we also take care of business against McMurry,” he said.
“I would also say that all the guys just love to play and we look forward to the next game we play the night after a game.”
With that kind of approach, there is no telling how far the Crusaders can go in 2022.