Originally Published: November 23, 2008 12:21 a.m.
Finally, at long last, after 17 previous out-of-state trips to the national tournament, the Yavapai College Roughriders eyeballed this year's late November schedule. The tournament, for the first time ever since the brackets started in 1961, would be on Arizona turf.
And where would the Roughriders rather be?
"I'd prefer to be in New Jersey or Texas," YC head coach Mike Pantalione admitted on Saturday, before expounding his point, "purely on an educational experience for the players, where they are attracted to other events and other activities and other settings, whether it's back east or in the great state of Texas. Being in Phoenix, though, has a plus from the standpoint of the terrific crowd support we've had in conjunction with our first two matches. Although the stadium wasn't built in 1930 like Ken Lindley Field, it still has a similar atmosphere as far as passion and enthusiasm with the crowd in their support of the players."
All kidding aside, the Roughriders have warmed up nicely to the new tournament site. Yavapai scored seven goals in its first two games to qualify for the school's 13th national championship game appearance. The unblemished and seemingly unstoppable 2008 squad will seek YC's seventh national title Sunday with an afternoon kickoff (1:30 p.m.) against San Jacinto, Texas, at the Rose Mofford Complex in Phoenix.
After two games in two days, the Roughriders enjoyed a restful off day on Saturday in and around their Phoenix hotel. The players mostly slept in, went to a team breakfast and gathered for a light training session from 1-2 p.m. where they "knocked it about a little bit," according to assistant coach Hugh Bell.
There was some stretching, visits to the trainer's room, a team lunch and even a catnap or two. Preparation was also on the uneventful agenda, though, as the coaches hosted short yet direct group strategy meetings with certain members of the 25-0-0 club.
"We went over San Jacinto's style and tendencies and players to be on the lookout for," Pantalione said. "And to emphasize what we need to do both on the attacking side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball to be successful tomorrow afternoon."
There's little to do in the way of mechanics this late in the season. This team in particular, against the backdrop of their Roughrider brethren who have redefined soccer strength in the NJCAA, is alone in its historic potential.
A win Sunday would certainly mark the greatest of all Yavapai glories - an elusive 26th win of the season, a milestone that no men's college soccer program has ever achieved at any level, from the NCAA to the NAIA to all classifications. It would also be the second repeat title in school history (2002-03). And no Yavapai team has ever gone completely perfect, including no ties.
"When you have a returning team, a team that has gone the distance the year before, and you think about your freshman class who come back and play as sophomores together," Bell said Saturday, reflecting on this group, "there's obviously confidence, experience, comfort, the camaraderie with each other, and the tremendous ability all over the field, both in attack and defense."
However, no one is conceding any titles yet. Certainly not San Jacinto.
The Houston-based program toppled South Suburban, Ill., 3-1 in Thursday's tournament opener, and then handled longtime power Mercer County, N.J., 2-1 in Friday's semifinal. San Jack brings an 18-1-2 record into the school's first-ever championship game with a singular confidence - knowing it has beaten Yavapai once already, and in Arizona.
The programs have faced off three times since 2000, and San Jack got the better of Yavapai in 2007. The team traveled to Prescott for the Roughriders' annual early-season tournament and left with a classic 2-1 double-overtime victory at Lindley Field - just Yavapai's sixth loss ever at home since 1988.
"San Jacinto has been knocking on the door in recent years for a national title," Pantalione said Saturday. "Over the past few years they've been a legitimate top two, three or four team in the country, and certainly we're not surprised that they're in the final game on Sunday. They are an extremely fast, quick and talented team and can score from a variety of areas on the field."
With the nomadic nature of JUCO sports, many of the players on both teams involved in that 2007 decision won't be on the field in today's national championship. But the coaching staffs remain intact, and both sides have scouted the other all last week in Phoenix.
That loss, though, looms large for the Yavapai sophomores involved. This year's sophomore group, led by the phenomenal duo of Justin Meram and Francis Khamis - both of whom have a staggering 30 goals each this season - have already collected the most wins over a two-year period (49) of any sophomore class to pass through Yavapai. The 49-2 record is tarnished only by the San Jack game, and by a 3-2 loss at Pima during the regular season last year which is also the last time the program lost at all. It's been 32 straight ever since, which ties the second-longest winning streak in program history (1992-93).
The Roughriders aren't looking backward, though. Only forward.
"I think we're the fittest team," Bell said Saturday. "I think we're the ... how should I put it? ... the team that plays the best football."