Gearing up for their third Sun Belt Conference Tournament, the App State men’s soccer team (5-8-4, 1-3-1) will face off with reigning Sun Belt champion Hartwick (8-5-4, 2-2-1) to start their tournament run.
Only having six teams in the Sun Belt, every team makes the tournament with the top two seeds receiving a bye. The Apps enter the tournament as the No. 5 seed and the Hawks sit as the No. 4 seed.
Winning the past two Sun Belt Conference tournament titles, Hartwick has knocked App out of the tournament the past two seasons.
“None of us as seniors have beaten Hartwick before, and in the back of our minds there is a little motivation there, but we are not scared of them at all,” senior defender Ben Steen said.
In this year’s regular season matchup at Hartwick on Oct. 15, the Apps were able to pull out a scoreless draw against the Hawks, which was their first result other than a loss since another scoreless draw during the regular season in 2014.
Having an unbeaten streak for six straight games during the middle of the season, App knows that they can compete with anybody in conference. They also had their confidence boosted when they pulled out an impressive 1-1 draw on the road at Charlotte, who then sat ranked at No. 5 in the country.
“It is going to be an exciting time, and I felt like we were in every game, but we just have to tighten up in some areas,” head coach Jason O’Keefe said. “It’s tournament time, so it’s anybody’s trophy as long as they go out and get it.”
With a win, the Mountaineers would then face off with No. 1 seeded Coastal Carolina. App had the Chanticleers on the ropes earlier this season, but they just fell short in a 2-1 loss in overtime.
Because of the single elimination format, the Mountaineers’ core of five seniors is taking this game with even more intensity. Having possibly only one more game in an App State uniform, this senior class knows they will have to dig deep to impress now and build for the future.
“Our whole season has been about leaving a legacy as a senior class, and trying to leave a culture behind and be good examples for the other guys,” senior midfielder Jordan Melia said. “We are going into it with confidence, and if we play like the way we have played during some games this season, then we can beat anyone in our league.”
Leading the Mountaineers with eight goals and 29 shots, senior forward Stephen Chapman has had his presence felt on and off the pitch. Just a few weeks ago, Chapman was named CoSIDA Academic All-District, which recognizes players with excellent performances on the field and in the classroom.
“It shows a level of discipline to be able to work hard on the field and off of it, and it is really tough for student athletes,” Chapman said. “It has taught me a lot to where I know that if I can work hard on the field then I can work hard off the field, and I am really grateful for it.”
With this being the first year under O’Keefe, the Apps made strides towards a successful future. For some of the players that will not return next season, they know they have left the Mountaineer program in good hands.
“We have learned a lot, and as seniors it is hard because the coach and the coaching staff are going to make this team really good, and we may not get to see the reward of that,” Melia said.
The Mountaineers’ first game will be on Thursday at 3 p.m. on ESPN3. Round two will be on Friday and the championship match is slated for Sunday.
Story By: Tyler Hotz, Sports Reporter