Goalkeeper Harry Townsend spent his first two seasons at Missouri State training in obscurity on the practice field. He appeared in only four matches as the Bears blazed what’s become a normal trail to the NCAA Tournament.
As Missouri State returns to the soccer postseason on Thursday with an NCAA first-round game at Creighton, Townsend will be a prominent part of the action for one of the nation’s top defensive teams.
“Harry is really good,” teammate Lewis Green said. “He’s improved a lot since last year and he keeps getting better.”
Townsend and the Bears have a program-record 12 shutouts heading into their fourth straight NCAA Tournament, scheduled to kick off at 4 p.m. Thursday at Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s a rematch of a first-round NCAA game last year in Springfield, won by Creighton.
Hard work paying off
Defense and a blue-collar work ethic has long been a foundation of the Missouri State program and that hasn’t changed in Michael Seabolt’s first season as head coach. Townsend, a junior from Cornwall, England, moved into the lineup in the all-important goalkeeper position and has excelled.
“He needed a few games under his belt to just play and be the starter and just get that confidence and feel for it,” Seabolt said. “Other than that, it’s been the work he’s done the last two years.
“It’s the work when he was working with (goalkeeper) Michael Creek and the training and staying dedicated. I can’t say he loved every minute of being a redshirt and not playing, waiting for his turn. But he got through it and used it to grow. He’s reaping the rewards now.”
Growing up a goalie
Townsend said he’s played in goal all his life, starting with youth teams in his native England. He came to Missouri State by way of Plymouth Argyle FC where he first started with the team’s Under-10 squad.
Asked why he’s always played in goal — stopping shots while teammates get the glory of scoring — Townsend smiled and said “that’s a good question.”
“My dad (Graham) used to be a goalkeeper back in England. I guess it’s in the blood.”
Townsend credits teamwork
While it takes obvious physical talent, Townsend said psychology is a big part of maintaining success in defending the net.
“It’s almost a position within itself, within the team,” Townsend said. “It’s about staying strong and sort of having the confidence that if you make a mistake … bouncing back is a massive quality that you have to have as a keeper.
“You also have to have the fundamentals. Making the big saves at the right times and technically doing things right to give the team confidence.”
Seabolt said goalkeepers must have “dedication to your craft” and compares it to being outstanding in an individual sport such as tennis or golf while being a part of a team.
“He has that personal-growth mindset, yet he’s also there for the team,” Seabolt said.
Townsend said defensive success is all about working together with his teammates, communicating with defenders to not only protect the goal but to help get the offense started.
A slight bump in the road
Some of that went awry for a couple of games in late September when the Bears gave up three goals in back-to-back games, against Tulsa and Evansville. Other than those games, they’ve allowed only three goals total in the other 15 games and have gone 8-0-2 down the stretch.
“That was a great eye-opener in regards to communication and attention to detail,” Seabolt said. “We challenged ourselves after those two results to get that right and it has been part of that growth, not just with Harry but with defenders all around.
“We’re going to work hard and we’re gonna have discipline. We have the least fouls in the country and the least yellow cards in the country. These are things we try to do well. We work hard and defend well, but the defense is also the attack. A lot of the defense is dictating play and it starts with the forwards.”
Team cherishes trophies more than individual awards
Despite the 12 shutouts, Seabolt said it was interesting that the defense didn’t get a lot of recognition in all-Missouri Valley Conference honors. Even Townsend was overlooked when all-MVC awards were announced last week.
“I challenged the guys to remind everyone of how good they are and we got two shutouts,” Seabolt said of the MVC Tournament. “We’re all about being two-way players. Everyone attacks and everyone defends.”
Asked about extra motivation in regards to the all-conference snub, Townsend said it “of course it’s more motivating when you don’t get recognized, but we’re competing for free trophies and that’s where our focus is.
“Individual awards aren’t at the forefront of this team as much as free trophies. We’ve won two (MVC regular season and tournament) and now we have the opportunity for a third.”
Disappointed in not hosting, but happy to be playing
The Bears said they were slightly disappointed by not getting to play host to a first-round game for the second straight year.
“We hoped for a home game and thought we were potentially in a position to get a home game, but it’s not the end of the world,” senior midfielder Jack Denton said. “ A chance to play in the NCAA Tournament is all we can ask for. It’s given us a stage to prove we’re the team we think we are.”
The winner of the Missouri State-Creighton match advances to play at national No. 2 seed Washington on Sunday.
Missouri State soccer at Creighton in NCAA Tournament
When: 4 p.m. Thursday
Where: Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Neb.
Records: Missouri State 12-1-4; Creighton 9-4-6
TV: ESPN3 and ESPN+