Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- There was no getting around it. Championship matches simply have a different feeling to them than all the others. Saturday night’s duel between ASC rivals Hardin-Simmons and UMHB was no exception.
With a chill in the air, and an exceptionally large crowd on hand, one of the most competitive matches of the season played out beneath the bright lights of the Cru Soccer Field.
It is an old cliche that beating a good team once is hard, and beating a good team twice is even harder, Much less doing it in the span of two weeks. But that is exactly what UMHB accomplished in a 1-0 victory that earned the program its first conference title, and only its second trip to the NCAA Tournament.
And better yet, the Crusaders claimed the title against a bitter rival, a team they had only beaten twice before. A team that had won the previous 19 ASC titles.
For the second straight match, UMHB was held scoreless in the opening half, despite a consistent offensive attack. Two exceptional back lines went toe-to-toe, taking turns clearing the opponent’s offensive pressure, and regaining possession. The 0-0 score at the 45-minute mark did not come as much of a surprise. When these opponents battled in last year’s edition of the ASC championship game, HSU won on penalty kicks, after a 0-0 tie was held through both halves and two overtime periods.
It seemed entering the match that one goal would be all it would take, considering both teams had posted shutouts in their tournament semifinal matches on Thursday night. And that proved correct.
In the 51st minute, with the second half having just gotten underway, UMHB’s Gabby Gibson received a pass just outside of the box, and quickly sent a shot towards the right side of the frame. Initially, it appeared that HSU goalkeeper Haley Foley would tally another save. But Foley was unable to pull it in. She initially deflected it, but could not stop the ball’s progress towards the back of the net, as the ball bounced across the line, giving UMHB a 1-0 lead.
The goal was reviewed for several minutes, but ultimately confirmed, and from that point on, UMHB had a lead to protect. The next 39 minutes had its mix of excitement and nervousness from the home crowd, as HSU came close to a goal of its own on multiple occasions. But the UMHB defense, led by tournament MVP Kristen Burdick, was relentless. HSU had few opportunities in open space, and by the time the PA announcer called out “One minute left”, the intensity was at its peak.
When the final horn sounded, the Crusaders had already sprinted onto the field, celebrating the monumental win. Saturday night’s victory will be one remembered for years to come. It was a near-flawless performance against a regionally-ranked rival with the conference title on the line.
Editor’s Note: There will be more to come on this story, including coverage of where UMHB will fit into the national bracket, and quotes from head coach Barry Elkins.