Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON-After rolling to the American Southwest Conference title a year ago, with successive 5-1 and 6-0 victories in the ASC Tournament, the UMHB men’s soccer team begins 2023 with a not-so-unusual target on their backs.
In 2018, 2019, and now, 2023, the Crusaders earned the top spot in the ASC Preseason Poll, drawing plenty of attention even before the season’s first match was recorded.
10 of the 18 first–place votes in this year’s poll, made up of league head coaches and sports information directors, were awarded to UMHB. Going 21-2-2 in conference play over the last three seasons earns that kind of recognition.
“Every year, everyone wants to beat Mary Hardin-Baylor, no matter what sport you play,” UMHB head coach Ben Allen told True To The Cru. “These guys came here and want to win.
“Nobody gets a trophy for the preseason vote. So we take that as an honor, but with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, what we do at the end of the year, heading into November, is what matters the most. That’s what our eye is on, and that’s what we’re playing for.”
That is certainly a realistic expectation for the Crusaders, despite losing six of the 11 players who started in the First Round NCAA Tournament match against Pacific Lutheran in 2022. They graduated a talented senior class, but it has allowed for younger standouts to step forward into the team’s leadership roles.
“We lost a core group of fifth-year guys and some really good fourth-year guys,” Allen said. “We’re not hitting the “reset” button, but now it’s the passing of the torch to the next group. Those returning guys are ready to step up and continue the legacy and the next chapter of Cru Soccer.”
That group includes a trio of sophomores–Karsen Macias, Sawyer Young, and Peyton Hoyt–who were named to the ASC’s Preseason “Players To Watch” list last week. Ethan Dacaret, who tied for the team lead in goals, with eight, last season, returns for his junior year. And Keven Daniel, a 14-game starter a season ago, will be looking to step up in his role as a defender.
Needless to say, the returning talent is encouraging for Allen, as he looks ahead to the 2023 campaign, his second at the helm of the UMHB program.
“It’s nice to be able to bring back a lot of pieces, and add some key pieces too,” Allen added. “You have half of a group that knows what it takes, and the other half is learning. To be able to have those [returners] come back and show and teach the new guys what it takes is huge.”
The regular season opener is set for Friday, against Rhodes College. But UMHB already had two opportunities to build chemistry and fine-tune its play against an outside opponent in exhibitions against Angelina College and Jacksonville College last week.
“We’ve got a lot of new players, so it was good to integrate some of those guys,” Allen said. “We played well against Angelina, who were the 10th seed in the NJCAA National Tournament last year, and they were really quality again. We got a good result against them, and then beat Jacksonville. Regardless of the results, we wanted to give guys the opportunity to play and see what we have.”
It leads up to the aforementioned season opener against Rhodes, who reached the Southern Athletic Association championship match last fall. This marks the first time in program history that UMHB has faced the Lynx.
“They play hard and had a lot of ties last year,” Allen said of Rhodes. “Watching film on them, they’re just gritty. We’ll be tested early against an opponent who is really going to push us. It’s going to be a difficult game. We’re excited to give the guys an opportunity to travel on the road and open up with a good non-conference opponent.”
After facing Rhodes, UMHB is set to take on Hendrix College on Sunday at noon. Both matches will be played on Hendrix’s home field in Conway, Arkansas.