Monday provided a nervous and anxious moment on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem. The second-year men’s soccer program was on the cusp of an invitation to the 2015 NCAA Tournament, but even with a 14-5-2 record for the season, a second-place finish in the Western Athletic Conference it would take an at-large berth to land the Wolverines in the tournament for the first time.
When UVU was selected to meet Southern Methodist University on the road in Dallas for its first ever NCAA College Cup match, there was a rush of pride in Head Coach Greg Maas.
“When we found out we were going to be in the tournament, it was nothing short of remarkable. I couldn’t be more proud,” Maas said on Tuesday, two days before the Wolverines face the Mustangs in the tournament. “It’s an incredible accomplishment – it’s an historic accomplishment, to be quite honest with you. It’s not just for Utah Valley University, but the soccer landscape here in Utah.”
That historical perspective is hardly hyperbole. The rapid rise of Utah Valley University’s soccer program is indeed something to behold. After opening its inaugural season last year with a 9-7-2 record that included a 5-1 win over UMass in the first ever match for the Wolverines, Maas reset the goal of bringing his team to the NCAA Tournament.
It was always a goal for the team, but Maas’ squad leapt right past the first-season struggles his team was supposed to see and right into the category of contenders.
The former Technical Director of Utah Youth Soccer knew a thing or two about building soccer in Utah and found the right combination of players in a mix of local standouts from the Salt Lake City area and players from around the country. It’s a combination that has not only yielded success on the field, but off it as well, earning academic honors as a top-10 team in the country in both seasons it has taken the field.
“When I set out to build this team from Day One, I wanted to identify not just great players, but great citizens. For me it was about establishing the culture first and really build the foundation for what this program is going to be down the road. The most important part was the right student-athlete that was going to make sure that the culture and the expectations where established right from the beginning,” Maas said. “When you have a good locker room and a belief and a spirit about the team, you can do great things.”
UVU continued that inaugural season success with a five-game winning streak to open the season in 2015. Paced by the nine goals and two assists from forward Skyler Milne, the standout defensive effort of junior captain defender Alex Neff and the breakout play of freshman midfielder Aaron Meyer, the Wolverines climbed into the national consciousness.
By staying on the front foot for the duration of the season and going 6-3-1 in the conference slate, UVU knew it would need to find some success in the conference tournament to have a chance at the postseason. After a win over UNLV and a draw against Seattle University – ranked No. 9 in the country in the final NCAA RPI – put UVU in position to be hopeful for a tournament bid.
Those successes already have Maas smiling about the 2015 season, even while knowing the growth of the program isn’t over yet.
“We look at the process, not the outcome. This is the next step in that process both this year and next year and in years to come,” Maas said. “We’ve had a successful season, but we’re going into SMU with no other purpose than to win that game.”
Maas is understandably prideful of how far the UVU soccer program has come so quickly. And while he has been the man pulling the strings in the program from the beginning, he is quick to distribute the credit for the early success.
“To have the opportunity to lead and build this program for the past couple of years has been such a tremendous opportunity and honor. We always said that the expectations were higher for our group within,” he said. “I would also say that we got here sooner than I thought. But that’s a credit to our players and their commitment to the game, to the staff and the preparation around us to get the guys to play at the level that they are.”
UVU kicks off against SMU on Thursday at 6 p.m. MT. The winner will advance to face No. 13 seed Denver on Sunday.