The Southwestern University Pirates men's soccer team will begin this year's season against the team that ended its last one, facing the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (UMHB) Crusaders at 8:00 p.m. in Georgetown.
Last year, in Head Coach Dustin Norman's first season running the program, the Pirates earned the first NCAA Tournament appearance in team history, falling to the Crusaders 2-0 in the first round.
"Obviously, it's a big game. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't," Norman said. "It was pretty intentional trying to schedule that under the lights at home.
"There's no better way to start this season for this group of returners. And for the first years, they'll get a quick look at the level of competition last year brought."
Since his arrival, Norman has challenged his players to raise the bar, taking a team that went 6-12-3 in 2017 and improving it to 12-6-3 last season, including an 8-4-2 record in Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) play.
"I told the guys when we all got together for the first time, we're going to raise the standard," Norman said. "We certainly did in the first year. I wasn't sure what it'd look like, not knowing the players or the landscape.
"Now that we have an idea of what it looks like, it's about growth. We've planted the seeds and the players put in a lot of work in the offseason. We're looking forward to seeing that continued growth throughout the fall season."
If team and coach spent the first year together figuring itself out, the conference still might not be quite sure what to make of these Pirates.
Despite a strong showing through the SCAC Tournament, taking eventual champion Trinity University to a draw in the championship match before losing to penalty kicks in overtime, the Pirates were voted fourth in the SCAC preseason coaches' polls.
The team graduated leading scorer and First Team All-SCAC forward Jake Swonke, Second Team All-SCAC forward Alex Newell, and defensive starter Colin Maloney, who all made significant contributions to the Pirates' late-season run.
But it returns All-West Region Third Team defender Brendan Dauth, his backline partner Garrison Van Houten, and Second Team All-SCAC forward Kip Karschnik. More importantly, it returns a higher baseline of expectations after rising from conference afterthought to a NCAA Tournament berth in the course of one season.
"We're definitely hungry. We want a trophy bad and this is a good year to make a run for it," Dauth said. "A lot of guys were bummed out we didn't get it and they're returning hungrier to make another run for it."
The secret to last year's success wasn't in any individual player on the roster but in the journey they shared. Southwestern won games with Swonke or Newell in the lineup and without, each facing injuries at various points in the season.
Last year's team was fourth in the SCAC in goals scored and only sixth in total points. They were a respectable defense, giving up the fourth fewest goals in conference, but not overwhelming.
Instead of its overall statistical body of work, the Pirates excelled by focusing on the smallest details. Eating right, seeking treatment, focusing on only the game or practice in front of them.
Matches were played on the Pirates' terms, slowing the game down with incremental progress up the field via throw-ins by returning defender Wil Mekelburg and opportune scoring through set pieces. Statistics went out the window when the Pirates locked in.
"This is a group that knows how to win regardless of the players on the field," Norman said. "It's about the process and the group. Playing a team game to give us an opportunity to compete in any game and give us an opportunity to win."
Another secret to last year's team was the balance of the roster. It wasn't a team deep in top-end talent. But the guys just out of the rotation were strong enough to push those in the rotation and now have an opportunity to step into bigger roles.
They'll also have 10 new faces, including seven first years.
"We're excited about the incoming group. We have a lot of young, talented players who bring a lot to the table," Norman said. "But it's like I told the guys in the spring, the guys who were already here, who know what we've been through, are fully reliable and capable of winning games."
It won't be an easy path. Trinity enters the season in its customary spot in the national polls, opening the season ranked ninth and returning All-American Quentin Van Der Lee. Colorado College and Texas Lutheran are both strong opponents in conference.
Southwestern remains unfazed by any of it.
"The main thing we learned as a team is when we all committed ourselves to one cause, rowing in the same direction, there's a chance to do something special," Norman said. "Each day, focusing on that process and the how and why of what we do will give us an opportunity to come out on top."