Photo of the Cru Soccer Field in Benton by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
Conference tournament time has arrived for the UMHB men’s and women’s soccer teams, who, for the second straight year, both enter their respective American Southwest Conference Tournaments as the No. 1 seed.
The Crusader men claimed the league’s regular season title for the third straight season, finishing the ASC slate with a 7-1 mark. UMHB’s women’s team, ranked No. 1 in Wednesday’s Region X Regional Rankings from the NCAA, went 7-0-1 in the ASC, winning the regular season title on the final day of the season with a 2-1 victory over Concordia (TX).
Now NCAA Tournament bids are on the line. The winner of the men’s and women’s ASC Tournaments secure automatic berths to the NCAA Tournament next week, and UMHB is aiming to have its men’s and women’s soccer teams both playing in the national tournament in the same year for just the third time in program history.
Last Time Out
Concordia (TX) posed a real threat to both the Crusader men and women last Saturday night for different reasons.
In the women’s match, the Tornadoes were in a playoff game situation, needing a win over The Cru to secure a spot in the six-team ASC Tournament. Without a victory, Concordia’s season would be over. That late-season situation immediately put UMHB in a high-intensity contest at Belton’s Tiger Stadium, facing an opponent who was competing with its season on the line.
The Crusaders answered the call.
“We talk about UMHB and Hardin-Simmons having the rivalry, but honestly, our direct rival is probably more Concordia,” UMHB head women’s soccer coach Barry Elkins noted. “Over the years, we’ve gone back and forth and it’s just two teams that know each other really well. We’re not that far apart, so a lot of the kids know each other.
“Being able to get that win is always nice. We know it’s one of the more dangerous games on our schedule. We knew going in that Concordia had to win to get in. It gave us that playoff atmosphere.”
The two opponents battled for the first 45 minutes, and remained deadlocked at 0-0 by halftime. But Ashley Vensel came through with a goal in the 58th minute, and Maren Fields added another for UMHB seven minutes later.
Vensel, who ranks second on the team in goals, with seven, has been key for The Cru both offensively, and defensively, this season.
“I think she’s probably our best two-way player,” Elkins said of Vensel. “Our forwards do a good job on the attacking end. Our mids and defenders do a good job on the defensive end. But Ashley plays the position that she’s called to, one, be our attacking mid and be involved in the attack, but then also, she gets no leeway on the defensive end. She’s really stepped up her game, especially going into this year, being able to give us literally more production from the attacking mid than we’ve ever had in any season.”
Vensel will certainly be key for UMHB moving forwards into the postseason, as she brings experience to the table as well. The midfielder from McKinney will play in her 59th career match in Thursday’s ASC semifinal.
On the men’s side, the Crusaders enter the conference tournament in a uniquely similar position to where they were last year at this time: coming off a regular season finale loss. Long known as one of the top programs in the ASC, Concordia took down The Cru in the final conference regular season meeting between the two programs on Saturday night, 2-1. Concordia moves to the SCAC starting in the Fall of 2024.
The same occurred in 2022, with Concordia sending UMHB back to Belton with a 5-1 loss in the regular season finale. UMHB responded by winning consecutive conference tournament contests, claiming the league title and reaching the national tournament.
“We gave up that early penalty,” UMHB head men’s soccer coach Ben Allen said of Saturday’s loss. “The call didn’t go our way there, and [Concordia] capitalized. I think they had maybe one other chance on frame in the first half, and we had several that we just didn’t bury.
“It felt like we just didn’t finish the chances we had. So we walk away from the game going, ‘On a different day, could we get the result? Sure. But they’re a good team.’ It’s always a difficult game against them. But I think we walked away from that positive, even though that sounds weird. We didn’t finish our chances, they capitalized on theirs, and we’ll move on to the tournament.”
One of the biggest positives that Allen referenced came in the form of scoring opportunities. Plenty of them, in fact, with 11 shots, and four on goal. Now it is just a matter of finishing on those chances, and Allen is confident in his squad’s ability to do that.
“I thought we were getting in the right spots and creating advances,” Allen said. “It’d be different if we just couldn’t make anything happen. I feel like our guys are pretty dialed in. I’m excited to see what we’ll do this week.”
ASC Semifinal matches on tap for Thursday
Thursday is the first day of tournament play for both UMHB teams, as the Crusaders earned quarterfinal byes as the top seeds in their respective tournaments.
The UMHB men will host the final two rounds of the tournament in Belton, meaning the Crusaders face UT-Dallas on their home turf on Thursday at 5:00 p.m. UMHB previously took down UTD, 2-0, on Oct. 14 in Belton. With a win, they would advance to the tournament championship on Saturday, and face either Concordia or Hardin-Simmons.
“Anytime you can be at home, sleep in your own bed and have a routine and structure, it will make a huge difference,” Allen said. “We’re excited to be at home and play in front of our home crowd and have a chance to win the conference tournament.”
The UMHB women will also play at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, facing McMurry, a team the Crusaders took down, 2-0, just two weeks ago.
Due to ASC soccer operating code, in the event that one institution captures the No. 1 seeds in both the men’s and women’s conference tournaments, as has happened this year with UMHB, the men’s team has hosting priority in odd-numbered years. In even-numbered years, the women’s team has hosting priority.
As a result, the Cru women will play in Abilene, on the campus of Hardin-Simmons, the No. 2 seed. Elkins said the Crusaders’ preparation throughout the season centers more on themselves and their objectives in that particular match than on the opponent at hand. That approach will remain entering the conference tournament.
“If we’re playing well, and doing the right things, I’ve always felt we can compete in any soccer game,” Elkins said. “That’s pretty much what we focus on all season long. We played [McMurry] recently and we know what to expect. But preparation-wise, we concentrate on ourselves, make sure we know what we’re doing, and that we’re doing it at a high level.”
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