Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON- Ben Allen can still recall the sights and sounds of that NCAA Tournament match, now 13 years ago. The stands were full at the Cru soccer field, fans clad in white, cheering UMHB on in its debut in the national tournament.
“We had 800, 1000 fans, in a white-out game,” Allen said, thinking back on one of the fondest memories of his playing career. “Being able to be at home for a postseason match is just really special.”
That 2-0 loss to Hardin-Simmons in 2009 still stands as the only NCAA soccer tournament duel (men or women) contested in Belton. But is soon to change, as the Crusaders, who walloped LeTourneau 6-0 in the ASC Championship game a week ago, will host a regional on Saturday and Sunday. For the 11th time this season, UMHB will play on its home turf. And Allen’s resilient squad hasn’t lost yet in Belton.
“We knew with the schedule we had, we put ourselves in the position to potentially host,” Allen said Monday. “To be able to have home field advantage in the NCAA Tournament is huge.”
If anyone in the program should know, it’s Allen. Few get the opportunity to witness a program develop as a contributor on the field, then as an assistant, and finally in the role of head coach, as he has. UMHB has played for a national title on three previous occasions, 2018 being the last, and in each tournament appearance, Allen has been involved. His assistant, Javier Zaragoza has been in the position before too. In addition to being a graduate assistant on the 2018 team, Zaragoza contributed to the Crusaders’ longest run in program history in 2017, as UMHB won two games in the tournament. Such are the aspirations for Allen and his squad, who, since a 4-1 loss at Concordia in the regular season finale, have been competing with unmatched intensity.
“It definitely helps, both of us having been through the NCAA Tournament,” Allen noted, “just as far as routine and schedule, and knowing what it’s like.”
The magnitude of this season’s ASC title, the hosting of national tournament games, and the impressive 13-2-2 record cannot be overstated. In a league as deep as the ASC is, with challengers around every corner, it takes a special group to achieve this level of success. Especially a year after the season ended in disappointing fashion.
Last October, the Crusaders were the team to beat in the ASC. But nobody did in fact find a way to upend head coach Brad Bankhead’s stellar squad during the 10-game conference slate. Not one loss. Not one draw. 10 straight wins.
But then the ASC Tournament rolled around. And Hardin-Simmons, the ever-competitive rival of UMHB in virtually every sport, brought its best to Belton. The result was a 2-0 loss for the Crusaders at the hands of HSU in the semifinal round, and just like that, the season was over. So was the win streak.
In some ways, the loss was a sort of “wake up” moment for the Cru. If only it hadn’t come so late.
Two weeks ago, UMHB experienced another sort of “wake up”. And luckily this time, it came in the regular season, almost leaving the Crusaders with nothing else to do but keep the pressure on its next two opponents for a full 90 minutes in each match.
“We were able to get refocused after the Concordia game,” Allen said of the 5-1 loss in the regular season finale, UMHB’s first in ASC play. “I think it was good to have that [loss] for the guys to come together. They were just ready [to get back on the field].”
Senior forward Patrick Roach agrees.
“I think it was really good for us to lose,” Roach said Thursday, noting that no loss is a positive but there are times when the timing of the loss seems to come at the right time. “Everybody refocused. It helped the freshmen know that we’re not invincible. It helped the upperclassmen remember what happened last year. So I think it was perfect timing.”
For Roach and Nick Villanueva, this run to the national tournament has come full circle. As fifth-year seniors, this will be their last season with the program, and since the year began, they have been determined to make it a good one. As freshmen during the Cru’s last tournament appearance in 2018, the duo benefited from exceptional senior leadership, with Roach being named the ASC’s Offensive Freshman of the Year and Villanueva starting all 21 games. Little did they know that it would be four seasons before they again had the chance to play for a national title.
“Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Roach said. “We won the conference that year, and I thought, ‘This is easy. We’re going to do this every year.’ But you definitely learn that is not the case. It’s a grind.”
Looking back, Villanueva sees a major parallel between that 2018 team, which beat Southwestern in the first round, and this year’s squad. The chemistry is at a high level, and is one of the must-have intangibles for successful teams. The upperclassmen have guided the newcomers, and everyone trusts each other, especially in crunch-time.
“I said from the preseason, that this is probably one of the best teams I’ve ever played with, because of the chemistry we have,” Villanueva said. ”I had said that if we have a chance to go far, this is the year. The upperclassmen have a great relationship with the freshmen.
“Coming in as a freshman, and being led by the upperclassmen, we had very good leaders in place that were able to help guide us,” Roach added. “Taking what we learned from them and applying it to the freshmen this year, to keep them on track and positive, is something we’ve managed to do.”
The atmosphere at practice over the last several days heading into Saturday’s First-Round contest has been one of concentration and positivity. The Crusaders are mentally focused, but not trying to approach the contest all that different from a regular season duel. After all, what UMHB has been doing up to this point has been working. Why stop now?
“At this point in the season, all we can tell the younger guys who haven’t been [to the NCAA Tournament] is what to expect and to play like it’s their last game,” Villanueva said. “We’ve been practicing like that all week and everyone is in a good mindset. Everyone is happy to be here, happy to play, and wanting to win.”
No matter what happens on Saturday night, this season will be remembered as one of the most successful in program history. But beyond that, the character of this squad is exceptional. For the seniors such as Roach, it is easy to look back on their freshman seasons and see how far the program has helped them progress in just a few short years.
“As a person, I think I’ve grown a lot in this program, from Coach Bankhead, Coach Allen and now Javy [Zaragoza]. I’ve become more mature and learned to not take things so hard. Things are going to happen, and you just have to take it on the chin and keep going.”
Such is the mentality UMHB will carry into its return to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s been a great season so far,” Villanueva said, “but we’re not done yet.”