STORY BY RUSSELL HEITMANN
VIDEO BY NICK SCHWIEN
It took just eight years, and only 100 victories for the FHSU men’s soccer program to reach the threshold of the ultimate goal in collegiate sports – a national championship. In fact, it was the Tigers’ 100th win exactly which propelled them to the NCAA Division II semifinals to be held this week in Pittsburgh, PA.
After hosting the Midwest and Central Regional Championships last week, FHSU advanced to the national semifinals after a come-from-behind victory over conference rival, Northeastern State in the Central Regional final, before dispatching Ohio Valley, 2-0, in the national quarterfinals. The Tigers are now winners of 14 matches in a row; however, their two most recent victories proved to be the most important in pushing the young program to the semifinals.
“That’s been a step that we’ve been short of for four or five years now, so it felt good to get the monkey off our backs,” said Brett Parker, head coach of the Tigers. “But I was really proud of the effort the guys put throughout the weekend in tough conditions against tough opponents.”
Parker, who has amassed a 100-40-17 overall record in his eight years at the helm of the Tiger program, always had goals of reaching the final weekend of the season when starting the program in 2011, but getting there proved to be one of the more difficult achievements. Fort Hays has made the NCAA Tournament in all but their first year of being a program, and in that time the Tigers have advanced to the quarterfinal round three times, but hadn’t been able to advance to the final stage – until now.
”It’s always the goal [reaching the semifinals] when you’re projecting 3-5-7 years out,” said Parker. “Early in the process of building the program, you could tell we were close. We were able to tick all of the boxes early in the history of the program but this one was the toughest one. We were always just a few pieces short. You could tell early on that we had all the pieces it took in place.”
However, the continued post-season success of the Tiger program is one of the high points for Parker when looking at the overall success of FHSU soccer.
“That is what I am most proud if is constantly competing in the postseason,” said Parker. “It shows the depth of the program and that we have players who are committed to the program and who buy in.”
One such player is redshirt-senior midfielder, Tobias Patino, who is one of three seniors on this year’s FHSU team who has played his entire career for the Tigers. For Patino, playing for a national championship and making it to the final weekend, is the one stage he has striven for in his time as a Tiger.
“Every year that I have been here, you always think about that think about going to the final four,” said Patino. “You always work for this. At this stage, you are still here and you are still trying to win a little bit more.”
And while the end goal is in sight for the Tigers, Patino knows their journey isn’t over just yet.
“[There is] definitely work to be done. I don’t feel like we are satisfied, we are hungry,” said Patino. “Just two more games. I am confident with this team. I am confident with the coaching staff [and] we are confident and we believe in each other.”
Fellow senior, Abdoulaye “Yaya” Cisse, feels reaching the national semifinals is gratifying for the Tiger program and brings Fort Hays Soccer some national recognition.
“It was huge. Nobody really thinks of our conference and nobody thinks we can make it to that level,” said Cisse. “But we’re past that stage, and seeing how hard the boys and the coaching staff worked to get there is really satisfying.”
Parker recognizes what it means for his senior class to advance to the final weekend of the season. The Tigers fell in the national quarterfinal round three years in a row (2014, 2015, and 2016).
“It’s great for those guys. They have been through a lot of ups and downs. Tobias was around for the first elite eight and now he gets to play in another one,” said Parker. ”It’s a big difference between getting to an elite eight and getting to a final four. It showed how difficult is to get over that hump.”
The Tigers flew out of Hays this afternoon for Pittsburgh and will train throughout the week before kicking off on Thursday at 11 a.m. eastern time against Barry University in the first semifinal match at Highmark Stadium. And although FHSU has expanded their trophy case in the past two years – winning back-to-back MIAA titles for the first league championships in program history – bringing a national championship trophy back to campus would be unimaginable for Parker.
“I don’t even think you can imagine what that would feel like,” he said. “The trophies we have won here have been special to the players and the school. But winning a national championship would be a really special thing.”