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Coach Michael Seabolt had his game face on as the starting lineups were introduced Thursday night, but as he surveyed the packed grandstands at Allison Stadium South, Seabolt couldn’t help but crack a smile.
Missouri State’s men’s soccer team, which has been the gold standard for the school’s athletics teams for several years, was about to take on Omaha in an NCAA Tournament first-round game on a gorgeous, unseasonably warm mid-November night.
“What a tremendous crowd and support from the community and the school tonight,” Seabolt said after the 11th-ranked Bears secured a tense 1-0 victory in front of 1,022 fans. “It was fantastic to have our fans behind us and represent Missouri State.”
From its days of being a nomadic home team, playing in various venues on and off campus, it’s pretty cool to see the Bears settle into their sparkling home facility. Not only is the quality of play top-notch, it’s a great place to watch a game.
There’s nothing small-time about the program
It’s a far cry from the old days of sharing Plaster Stadium with the football team. Once upon a time, with a soccer match scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on a weeknight, football practice ran long and the coach would not yield the field. The soccer Bears couldn’t even drag out the goals and begin warming up until a half-hour before kickoff.
There’s nothing small-time about the program now and there hasn’t been for a while. Missouri State is one of nine teams to play in the last five NCAA Tournaments and has now advanced in the tourney three of those five times.
Missouri State (12-3-3) plays at No. 16 national seed Stanford on Sunday in northern California. I suggested to Seabolt after Thursday’s victory — having a pretty good idea of the response I would get — that the Bears have a chance to make a big statement against a “name-brand” program in round two.
“We’re a name-brand school. Missouri State’s a name-brand school,” Seabolt responded. “We’ve made that name with five consecutive NCAA Tournaments. We’re a name brand and don’t see Stanford any different.
“I was on the national (tournament selection committee) and Stanford was the No. 16 team in, and we were right behind them. We were No. 16 in the RPI, so we’re right there with them and I know we’ll play with them, too.”
Seabolt continuing the winning work started by Jon Leamy
Seabolt is in his second season as head coach after a lengthy run as the legendary Jon Leamy’s assistant. There’s nothing mid about this major program, as the Bears have the best Division I overall record (71-10-8, .843 winning percentage) since 2019.
One of these years, Missouri State is going to not only advance a game or two in the NCAA Tournament, it’s going to make a deep run. Maybe even a charge at the Final Four. Who knows? This could even be the year, with 17 of the 26 players on the roster either juniors or seniors.
“It means (a lot) to get this in front of our fans. It was heartbreaking last year,” senior goalkeeper Harry Townsend said, noting a 2-1 first-round road loss at Creighton to open the NCAA Tournament. “We have a lot of experienced guys who have given a lot to this program.
“It’s one game at a time all season and we’re on to Stanford now. We just want to keep earning. We obviously want to win games and stuff, but we don’t really care who we’re playing. It’s just a 26-man roster against another 26-man roster. We’re just there to win a game.”
Massive save by Townsend helped secure win
The Bears might be packing up their gear instead of prepping for Stanford without Townsend’s massive, diving save on a point-blank shot from Omaha’s Martin Lago with 10:34 remaining. The ball was so close to breaking the line that officials went to video replay.
“That’s what I’m there to do,” Townsend said. “The boys work 90 minutes and if a team can work that hard for you, you need to produce the save.”
How close was the ball from going in? Townsend smiled.
“I don’t know why the refs were checking it,” Townsend said, before laughing.
Seabolt said he asked Townsend, during the review, to be honest.
“I said ‘Did you save it?’ He said he did and I thought he did,” Seabolt said. “So we just got focused on defending that next corner kick, knowing that wasn’t a goal, and what we had to do to finish out the game.”
Townsend, from Cornwall, England, sat out the Bears’ two games at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament with a slight injury. He returned to record his ninth shutout of the season and 23rd of his career.
“Harry had a fantastic night tonight,” Seabolt said. “He was sharp, his kicking was good and he made some great saves. He was ready to go.”
Freshmen combine to score game-winner
There is no substitute for veteran leadership, but it was a rookie who supplied the game’s lone goal. Freshman defender Mattia Petricca of Rome, Italy, scored on a header 18 minutes into the game on an assist from fellow freshman Tyler Caton to cap a well-executed corner kick.
“Big contributions from some of the young guys, too,” Seabolt said. “Mattia stepped up big time and he had another great chance (in the second half). He was brave. He got his head on it and that’s from a young man who broke his nose earlier in the season. It didn’t hold him back.
“I’m proud of the boys. They played well. We came out and got the goal and got the shutout. That’s how you get it done.”
Bears eye Sweet 16 appearance
The win is Missouri State’s third in the NCAA Tournament and second in Springfield. The Bears defeated Denver in the first round by the same score in 2019.
“It’s another 12-win season and we played a really tough schedule this year,” Seabolt said. “You can see that in our results and in the fight and experience this group has. It means the world.”
Now it’s on to Stanford, with the kickoff at 7 p.m. CST on Sunday as the Bears seek their second Sweet 16 soccer appearance. The game will be live-streamed on ESPN+.