Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- 12 seconds showed on the large scoreboard at the far end of the Cru Soccer Field. Slowly a cheer erupted into a roar. Phone cameras were pulled out. Barry Elkins raised his hands into the air in triumph. History was going to be made indeed, on this November evening.
“It got hectic there for the last two minutes,” Elkins, UMHB’s head coach, recalled earlier this week of Saturday’s 1-0 ASC title win over Hardin-Simmons. “I remember we got a throw in with 12 seconds left, and that’s when I raised my hands because I knew [that we could hold on for the win].”
The first team to accomplish a program feat is always held in a place of high esteem. The 2004 UMHB football squad became the first team in the storied history of the program to play in the Stagg Bowl. The 2012-13 men’s basketball team made UMHB’s first appearance in a national title game on the basketball court. The 2017 men’s soccer team still stands as the only one in program history to advance beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
This women’s soccer team has already been added to that list, as the first in program history to win a conference championship. And they did it by knocking off the winners of 19 straight ASC championships.
“We’ve won so many different ways this year, against so many different teams,” Elkins said. “Even going into Thursday’s game, we had to play differently. We had to make some adjustments in the second half and won on a penalty kick. We’ve done a great job just finding ways to win.”
But Saturday’s win did not mark the end of the season, and bring about a chance for the Crusaders to ride off into the sunset. Not just yet. As anyone in the program will tell you, this squad has not lost in 18 matches played this fall, and is hyper-focused on keeping that streak alive in San Antonio this weekend.
“The Bible talks about it, you’re refined through the fire,” Elkins said. “And this group has been through the fire, with the penalty kick loss to HSU last year, the late handball call against HSU, the penalty kick loss to UTD. [Our team] didn’t want that feeling again, and having had that feeling before, they knew what to fight against.”
Gabby Gibson’s goal in the 50th minute put UMHB in front in the championship game, as the fifth-year senior, whose first year with the program came a season after the Cru’s last trip to the national tournament, found the back of the net on a shot to the right side of the frame. Elkins was particularly glad to see Gibson come up with that key score, considering the role she has played in helping establish the foundation of this year’s team.
“Of course, I would’ve taken any goal,” Elkins said. “But Gabby is a tremendous part of our team atmosphere and culture. For her to get the winning goal like that, everybody loved it.”
For the next 40 minutes, the Crusaders played exceptional defense, shutting out HSU for the second time this season. Led by nine seniors, competing in the ASC championship game was nothing new for the most experienced on the roster. However, coming away with the victory, and a spot in the NCAA Tournament was.
“There haven’t been too many times where we get to keep playing this week,” an elated Elkins said Monday. “The past few years, we’ve come into work the day after taking a tough loss. This day has been nice. Everybody was excited to see what was going to happen with the tournament release. It’s been a really fun atmosphere.”
Leading into Selection Monday as it’s known, in other words the day on which the NCAA releases its tournament brackets, UMHB was completely unsure of who it would face in the opening round, or even where the game would be played. And frankly, it did not matter all that much to Elkins.
“Trying to guess at who our opponent was going to be, my brain doesn’t think that far,” Elkins said. “There was no way to pick that one.”
Aside from the trend of unpredictability from the NCAA when it comes to the bracket, there is another reason why Elkins did not worry himself too much with the topic of who his team would face. At this point in the year, as coaches like to say, “everyone is good”. He has seen his team take down Hardin-Simmons twice in the same year, something UMHB had not done in 38 previous meetings against the Cowgirls, and complete the regular season without a single loss. He knows what he has in this group of experienced veterans. There is no need to change things now that the stakes are higher than ever.
“We play our way,” Elkins said. “We like the way we play and it’s been successful up to this point. So we’re going to give it another try. It really wouldn’t have changed whether the opponent was Trinity, Pomona-Pitzer, or PacLu. We try to get after teams defensively, have some good scoring options, and we’ll just keep doing our thing.”
UMHB faces Pacific Lutheran at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in San Antonio.