BU wins HAAC tournament, advances to nationals

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

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After coming out on top of the Heart of America Athletic Conference tournament, the men's soccer team earned an automatic bid into the 2014 NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship tournament. The Wildcats will take on the No. 1 ranked University of Rio Grande in the opening round.

The sixth-seeded men’s soccer team defeated fourth-seeded Culver-Stockton College 3-1 Saturday in Canton, Missouri, to claim its second consecutive Heart of America Athletic Conference tournament championship.

As the sixth seed, the Wildcats were the last team to qualify for the HAAC tournament meaning every game would be on the road and against a higher seeded team.

“These past four games and the HAAC playoff run really made us focus in on the goal for the season, which was go out there and do every thing we can to win the national title,” junior defender Andrew Miller said.

Right before the conference tournament, Baker played Central Methodist University and defeated the Eagles, 4-1. Miller thinks that victory propelled the Wildcats into their conference tournament championship.

“I think the Central Methodist game was the right turning point in our season, which was four games ago,” Miller said.

The Wildcats started the conference tournament with a 2-1 road win Nov. 8 in Lamoni, Iowa, against the Graceland University Yellowjackets, a team that Baker lost to during the regular season.

The next test came on Wednesday against the second-seeded MidAmerica Nazarene Pioneers, who tied Baker during the regular season and finished with a 12-3-2 record. In the tournament, the Wildcats knocked off the Pioneers on their home field in a chilly, 2-1 victory to clinch a trip to the HAAC title game.

In Saturday’s HAAC championship, the Wildcats put themselves into a hole early. Culver’s freshman forward Mackenzie Northern rifled a shot from just inside the top of the 18-yard box off the counter-attack and beat freshman goalkeeper Pat Rydberg for a 1-0 lead. After this slip up for Rydberg, he made six ore saves on the afternoon.

Baker struck back quickly in the 33rd minute when senior forward Preston Phillips sent a looping ball toward the back post. Culver’s senior goalkeeper Richard Balek misjudged the ball and Phillips’ cross found its way inside the back of the net to tie the game at 1-1. This was Phillips’ second goal of the season. Balek was coming off a 26-save game against Missouri Valley in the semifinals.

In the 39th minute, first-team all-conference defender Amer Didic had a 25-yard set piece from right outside the box. Didic blasted the shot to the near post past the Culver keeper for his team-leading 11th goal of the season and Baker took the 2-1 lead into the half.

Baker dominated the first half with 11 shots compared to Culver’s six.

In the 68th minute, Baker scored an insurance goal to seal the postseason run. Sophomore Keaton Anchors, who scored the second and eventually game-wining goal in Wednesday’s semifinal victory at MNU, led the charge for Baker down the left touchline. Anchors whipped a cross into the middle for sophomore Jordan Thacker, who put the finishing touch on the Wildcats’ title run with his third goal of the season.

“Once we scored our third goal we were like ‘this is ours,'” Miller said.

Baker held out for the final 22 minutes, including a shot off the crossbar and a few narrow misses for Culver-Stockton, and the Baker Wildcats are bringing their second straight HAAC title back to Baldwin City.

Miller says his team is “clicking at the right time.”

Baker finished the afternoon outshooting Culver-Stockton 15-12 and put 53 percent of its shots on frame. Anchors led the team in shots with 5, Phillips had 4, and Didic had 2. Thacker, junior Austin Shiney and junior Andrew Miller each had 1 shot.

“We’ve just been grinding. We’ve all bought into the system,” Miller said. “We were a young team at the beginning, we knew what we wanted but we didn’t really know how to get there.”

Now standing at 9-8-3, the Wildcats will face the 15-1-2 Rio Grande Red Storm at noon on Saturday.

“We’re going to come out with hard work, high energy and put the ball in the box as much as we can,” junior midfielder Robert Hoeven said.