Months before Davie Carmichael coached his first game at Southern Oregon University, he made it clear that he wanted to take the makings of an-already quality team and get things even better.
With a win this afternoon, SOU will have done just that.
For the second straight season, the Southern Oregon men’s soccer team will be playing an NAIA Opening Round game. This time, however, the No. 13-seeded Raiders will be on their home field, as they host UC Merced at 2 p.m. today for the right to advance to Irvine, Calif., the site where the final five rounds of the national tournament will be played.
“I think the final goal for us, and it’s always been from the start of the year, is to go one step further this year and get to that final site in Irvine,” said SOU first-year head coach Davie Carmichael, the Cascade Conference’s Coach of the Year. “There is excitement, but it’s contained excitement because we know we have to get through this first game against UC Merced. We’ve played them before, we know what they’re all about and we’re trying not to get ahead of ourselves right now.”
SOU and UC Merced do have history, with the Raiders (16-2-3) picking up a 1-0 win over the Bobcats (13-4-2) 2 1/2 months ago on Sept. 8. The game was originally scheduled to be played in Ashland, but wildfire smoke forced it to be moved to California’s Central Valley. SOU, which played on the same day as it traveled, edged UC Merced 1-0.
“We really struggled down there but found a way to get a 1-nil win and we were very fortunate,” Carmichael said. “I think we know more about them, we’re at home and we’ve developed and progressed as a team. We’re pretty confident going into this game and we’re pretty much at full health — which, at this time of the year, is very important.”
That win proved to be the second step in what has turned into a 19-game unbeaten run for Southern Oregon, the longest active streak of its kind currently going in the NAIA.
Since starting the season 0-2, the Raiders have won 16 of their last 19 games, most recently falling 4-3 on penalty kicks in the Cascade Conference tournament title game against Rocky Mountain seven days ago.
Both Carmichael and his players aren’t shying away from talking about Saturday’s result against Rocky.
At this point, they feel like it’s going to work out to be a positive for them now that the NAIA tournament is here.
“I never look at any loss as just a loss itself. I look at it as something to grow on,” said SOU junior defender Michael Miller, the CCC’s co-Defender of the Year. “(Rocky Mountain) showed us weaknesses that we can improve upon this week, and obviously the penalty kicks, we’re going to work on that and get better at that. But knowing that we have Wyatt (Zabinski in goal) and guys who want to take (penalties), we’ll be fine. We just want to use it as a platform.”
Added Carmichael: “It might be one of the best things that has happened to us. It was a very competitive environment — Rocky Mountain turned up, SOU turned up and it was the cup final you hoped for without getting the result we hoped for. We were definitely challenged in many ways and we showed some good sides of our game as well, so I think it’s perfect preparation for the national tournament. Not winning that game and not getting that hardware to bring home probably stoked a fire a little bit for us. We’re upset about it, but we want to bounce back and get a good result and a good performance.”
Just as was the case a year ago, the Raiders enter the national tournament with one of the best defenses going in the NAIA. The Raiders trailed just once during conference play — where they dropped points just twice with a pair of draws — and have proven to be quite the impressive side to break down once they get the lead in hand.
That’s something that Carmichael knew coming in when he took the job in the spring.
The element he wanted to add to the squad was how they played in attack.
SOU is just one of two CCC teams this season to score over 50 goals, ranking second behind Rocky Mountain in both goals scored (56) and goals per game (2.67).
“We’ve shown that we can goals from set pieces, from open play, from combination play, from counterattack and transition, so we’ve got a lot of different variety to our attacking options now — and that was one thing I tried to set as our early goals,” Carmichael said. “We’ve had 19 players find the back of the net and get on the scoresheet this year. The defensive side was always going to be strong, that was the foundation of the program when I took over, but to add the offensive layer and the goals that we’ve scored has been key for us to move forward and find results.”
And the fact that the postseason starts at Raider Stadium is something that definitely does not escape them.
“This means way more than just a game at Raider Stadium. We take pride in playing here and showing the community how hard we work at practice and how it translates into the game,” Miller said. “There’s going to be a lot of pride involved and a lot of hard work. Whatever game we’re in we feel like we can win it because of hard work, and we know (UC Merced is) going to bring new styles of play, new elements that we didn’t see last time. But we also have some tricks up our sleeves. We’re ready to go.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.