One of the biggest goals the Southern Oregon University men’s soccer team set entering the 2018 season was to get to the NAIA National Championship final site in Irvine, Calif., and be one of the final 16 teams playing as the beginning of December approached.
The Raiders did just that two Saturdays ago with their first-ever NAIA Opening Round win. With the adrenaline still clearly pumping through his Scottish veins, SOU head coach Davie Carmichael made it be known that now that one goal has been checked off, it’s time to set his team’s sight on bigger and better.
With the No. 13 Raiders heading to Irvine to face No. 4-seeded and undefeated Rio Grande (Ohio) in the second round of the NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship at 11 a.m. today, bigger and better could be another 90 minutes away.
“Now we have to reset our goals and look at the national title as being the ultimate goal now,” Carmichael said after SOU’s 1-0 overtime win over UC Merced. “I think the character that this group shows and the unity they show, I don’t anyone on our day can beat us.”
Rio Grande (19-0-0), a two-time national champion (2003, 2015), was the No. 1-ranked team in the nation in the final regular-season coaches’ poll released at the beginning of the month.
The Red Storm, who beat Lawrence Technological University (Mich.) in its Opening Round game, is the highest-scoring team in the NAIA, averaging 5.58 goals a game and are the only team in the nation to surpass the 100-goal plateau.
And just for added kicks, Rio Grande has only allowed five goals all season, also the best in the NAIA.
The second-best defense in the NAIA? That belongs to Southern Oregon (17-2-3), which enters the game with 15 shutouts in 22 games this season and is currently riding a 20-game unbeaten streak.
Something will have to give between two teams who haven’t experienced much losing at all this season.
“It’s excitement, mainly,” SOU senior midfielder Paul Matyas said in regard to the Rio Grande matchup. “We’re just excited to take it one step farther in the process and keep building on the goals we set earlier in the season.”
Just as he emphasized entering SOU’s Opening Round game against UC Merced, Carmichael feels that the strength of the Cascade Conference — which accounts for three of the final 16 teams playing in Irvine — has prepared his team for this time of year.
Southern Oregon has played — and beaten — some of the best teams still remaining, with the intensity of playoff-like atmospheres and situations to boot.
The second round of the NAIA tournament may be uncharted territory for SOU, but Carmichael feels like his team is up for the challenge based on what they’ve seen the last couple of weeks.
“We get to that point in the season where it’s do-or-die and we know we have to leave everything out there, so it certainly prepared us that way,” Carmichael said of the CCC tournament, one where SOU fell in the title game to Rocky Mountain (Mont.) on penalty kicks. “And just the actual feel of that type of competition has prepared us. That final was one of the best finals that I’ve been a part of as a coach and a player collegiately in this country.
“It certainly prepared the guys and getting to overtime and the moments of penalty kicks and trying to get over those nerves. It certainly put us in a good place.”
Defending, SOU’s biggest strength, will obviously be key against an attack like Rio Grande features.
But same goes for the Raiders trying to break down a Red Storm defense that is just as impressive.
As SOU showed in its overtime win over UC Merced, Carmichael isn’t afraid to switch his tactical setup when his team needs a spark, with the Raiders going from the 3-5-2 formation that they opened the game with to a 4-3-3 in the second half. The result was a barrage of second-half scoring chances, as SOU recorded 14 shots (four on target) and produced nine corner kicks after the break.
“I think throughout the season we found success in both formations — and that’s a lot of credit to Davie,” Matyas said. “He introduced us to the 3-5-2 and brought it in during preseason and throughout the season, so we got a lot of practice in both formations so that we were able to make changes like that during the games.”
With success comes confidence, and there’s no doubting that the Raiders’ confidence is high these days.
To continue the best season that SOU’s still-young men’s soccer program has had, the latest step will be to take down a team that has been one of the best in the country ever since the season started back in August.
“(Rio Grande’s) just a really good, dynamic outfit that we’re going to have to be on our game to play against and get some result from this game,” Carmichael said. “There’s such good leadership on this team that we know we can win any game if we turn up. We fear nothing and we’re ready.
“Regardless of the outcome at the end of this game, Rio Grande will know that they’ve played Southern Oregon and hopefully it will be a little bit of a wake up call for them.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.