If there was any unseeded squad in the NAIA National Tournament that could play the spoiler role this year, Baker (Kan.) might be it.
So if No. 2-seed Columbia College men’s soccer wants to keep its unprecedented 21-0 record going and continue its bid for a first-ever national championship, they’ll have to hold off a Wildcats team at 1 p.m. Tuesday that Cougars coach John Klein said has no reason to be scared of them.
Why? Well, even though Baker is 13-6-3 — which looks paltry compared to 21-0 — it’s a deceptive 13-6-3.
It plays in a brutal Heart of America Conference that sent six representatives to the tournament, including the No. 1 seed and defending national champion, Central Methodist. If that wasn’t enough, the Wildcats also have a win over No. 7 Oklahoma Wesleyan and two victories over fellow round of 16 team Missouri Valley on its résumé.
The Cougars weren’t welcomed to Irvine, California, (where nationals are held) with a cupcake to pummel for an easy bid to the quarterfinals. They’re going to have to fight tooth and nail to get there.
“They’re dangerous,” Klein said. “They’re going to give us a game. I don’t think they’re coming in scared at all. They have good soccer players. ... They’ve got a star player (that’s a) good target, and then they’ve got a couple players underneath him. It’s going to be a battle tomorrow, for sure.”
That “star player” is Jordan Alonge, a 6-foot-2 forward from England that is the Wildcats’ leading scorer with 13 goals. The sophomore pairs well in attack with midfielders Lucas Jacobs (12 goals, six assists) and Jordan Lake (six goals, nine assists) and will be a trio that the CC defense will have to constantly keep eyes on.
Baker does have nine shutouts, including in five of its last six games, but its defense is exploitable and prone to letting goals pile on if an opposing attack makes its presence felt. The Wildcats conceded three or more goals in a game five times this year, and went 1-4 in those matches.
Klein said the Cougars’ goal Tuesday is to do exactly that: score early and often, then let the nation’s best defense (0.38 goals allowed per game) do its thing.
“I think the key is to play in their half of the field and keep the ball off of the foot of their stars,” Klein said. “I think we’re going to get our chances. It’s going to be important to score a goal or two ... in the first half. I think we do well playing with the lead.”
Columbia’s tournament seeding this season is the highest in program history, but one misstep means a flight back to Boone County with no banner to hang and wondering what could’ve been.
In addition, even though the Cougars’ talent is tournament-worthy, the tournament experience itself isn’t all there. When Columbia last qualified for the round of 16 in 2017, only five current players were also a part of the CC squad two years ago.
With that knowledge of the target on his team’s back and the anxiety associated with playing on NAIA’s biggest stage, Klein’s expecting some nerves to show early on in Tuesday’s match. The goal is to not let those nerves turn into mistakes.
“I would expect everyone to have some butterflies,” Klein said. “I think it’ll take 10 or 15 minutes to get settled in. But I think after 15 minutes ... they’ll relax and they’ll do what they came out here to do. And that’s competing to try and win soccer games.”