FHSU soccer kicks way into national spotlight

Artile Photo

By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. – Followers of Fort Hays State University fall athletics won’t have to wait until next year to watch Tiger football.

Tiger fútbol – i.e. soccer – is still alive in 2018.

The FHSU men’s soccer team traveled to Pittsburgh, Pa., earlier this week to compete for a national championship in the program’s eighth year of existence. The Tigers qualified for the NCAA Division II championship week by winning a quarterfinal match on their home field on Nov. 17.

FHSU Athletic Director Curtis Hammeke said Fort Hays State is fortunate this year to be part of the National Championships Festival, unique to NCAA Division II and held every four years for fall, winter and spring sports.

“This is going to be a great experience for our student-athletes, to be a part of the festival year,” Hammeke said. “It really enhances the experience for all of them, because it’s a much bigger production than it would be at one location for each individual sport.”

More than 900 student-athletes will be competing in Pittsburgh for six fall championships – men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s cross country, women’s volleyball and women’s field hockey.

The festival has an Olympic-type setting, featuring an opening and closing ceremony for the student-athletes on Tuesday and a social lounge area where they can congregate, similar to an Athletes Village. The festival also features participation in community engagement during the week.

It also will give the Tigers a chance to tell others about Fort Hays State. FHSU will be one of three schools representing Kansas at the festival. Washburn University’s volleyball team made the top eight, and Pittsburg State qualified its women’s cross country team as well as one runner in the men’s competition.     

“Any time you can get to where you are competing at the national level, it brings more exposure,” Hammeke said, “not only to your sport, but to your university as a whole, on a regional and national level and in a positive light.”

The 2-0 victory over Ohio Valley University on a cold, windy day not only lifted the program to new heights, but it also gave Brett Parker – the only head coach in program history – his 100th victory at FHSU.

The Tigers would like to make that 102 by the end of the weekend. The semifinal winners will advance to the national title game at 11 a.m. Central Time Saturday.

But first things first. FHSU is scheduled to take on Barry (Fla.) University in the first of two semifinal matches at 10 a.m. Thursday.

The match can be seen live online at https://www.ncaa.com/liveschedule/2018/11/29. It will be live-streamed in the Memorial Union’s Cody Commons as well as in Victor E. Lounge in Gross Memorial Coliseum.

With its 17-2-1 record, highlighted by a 14-match winning streak, Fort Hays State received the No. 1 seed for the final four.

Fort Hays State, ranked 11th in the nation, might have a bit of an advantage over its opponent, No. 4 seed and 20th-ranked Barry, whose home is in warm and sunny Miami.

FHSU practiced in cold temperatures recently and left town Monday, a day after Hays’ first winter blizzard of the season. Snow showers are forecast for the Pittsburgh area today and Thursday, with game-time temperatures in the mid-30s.

“We practiced in 30 degrees today with about an inch of snow on the ground,” FHSU Coach Brett Parker said via telephone Tuesday. “I don’t know if it will make a difference. But at least we know what to expect. We definitely are not afraid of cold weather. We’ll take any advantage we can get at this stage.”

The other half of the bracket also features a warm-weather team in No. 2 seed Cal Poly Pomona (17-6-0), which will face what would have to be a local favorite in No. 3 seed West Chester University (15-2-5).

West Chester, located in western Pennsylvania, is only about a four-and-a-half hour drive from Highmark Stadium.

However, Cal Poly Pomona has an edge in experience on the entire field; this marks the third trip to the final four in four years for the Broncos, who finished as national runners-up in 2015. CPP will enter Thursday’s match on a four-game winning streak after defeating three nationally ranked teams on its way to Pennsylvania.

Although Fort Hays State’s program is less than a decade old, Parker said reaching the national semifinals has been a long time coming.

FHSU made it to the quarterfinals four of the past five seasons. The first three years, the Tigers suffered close, heartbreaking losses each time – either by one goal or on penalty kicks following two overtime periods.

Then came this year.

“That (quarterfinal) game is always so difficult with the level of opponent you face and what’s at stake,” Parker said. “We finally got the monkey off our back.”

The Tigers had to overcome some adversity to even get to the quarterfinals this year.

Despite earning the top seed in the Central Region and earning the chance to host the regional and national quarterfinals, things didn’t look good early in the second half in the regional championship game.

FHSU was playing Northeastern State University, a team the Tigers had beaten twice before this season.

“It’s hard beating a team three times in a season, and it got harder each time we faced them,” Parker said.

None was more difficult than the regional title game. The Tigers trailed the RiverHawks 1-0 in the second half when FHSU’s star player went down with an ankle injury.

When junior forward Santiago Agudelo – the top scorer in all of NCAA II with 26 goals – left the field, Parker said, he didn’t have time to wonder how his team would react.

“Soccer is such a team game, and everybody realized they had to pick up some of the slack,” Parker said. “Of course, we would love to have Santiago, one of the best players in the country at his position, but we haven’t missed a beat.”

Fort Hays State went on to score three goals in the final nine minutes to beat Northeastern State, 3-1. The RiverHawks finished the season 15-3-1 with all three of its losses being to the Tigers.

“I think that really helped our confidence in the quarterfinal game, after still playing well in the regional game even without Santiago,” Parker said.

Agudelo, who injured tendons in his left ankle, is in a cast and won’t play this week. But he is still a big part of the team; his role has just changed.

“He’s a big reason why we are even here,” Parker said. “We wish he was playing, but it’s great having him with us on the sidelines, too.”

When looking back at the season, the 2018 Tigers will have plenty to celebrate: their 8-0 conference record earned FHSU a second straight MIAA championship.

Parker was honored as MIAA Coach of the Year for a second consecutive year. Agudelo was named Player of the Year for both the MIAA and the Central Region. Earlier today, Agudelo also garnered National Player-of-the-Year honors, as well as first-team All-America recognition by D2CCA. Two senior teammates, defender Luis Torres and goalkeeper Fernando Pina, also earned All-America honors.

The 17 victories to date surpassed the previous program-best by three. FHSU will finish the season ranked no lower than fourth in the nation.

But all the reminiscing will have to wait.

Right now, the Tigers are focused on Thursday morning’s game, and then hopefully can begin preparing for another match on Saturday.

“If we are going to fly all the way across the country, we might as well play two games,” Parker said. “We’re planning on being here, playing on Saturday.”

Cutline: The Fort Hays State University men’s soccer team felt right at home Tuesday night, enjoying the festivities under snow showers during the NCAA Division II Championships Festival Opening Ceremonies in Pittsburgh, Pa. Photo by Ryan Prickett

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