Peoria, Illinois (UCA) – The Central Arkansas men's soccer team earned its first-ever Missouri Valley Conference Championship on Sunday afternoon, defeating Missouri State 1-0 in overtime. The win propels to the Bears to their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
"What a special day, what a special weekend," said UCA head coach Ross Duncan. "We've been working incredibly hard for this moment. It came, and I couldn't be more proud."
Central Arkansas (9-10-1) would find the game-winner in the 95th minute, when Jake Bates and Chris Holmescombined to find Niklas Brodacki on the goal line. The MVC Player of the Year would deliver the golden goal, slotting it just inside the near post off the volley to secure Central Arkansas' first MVC Championship.
"Believe it or not, that's something that we had in the scout that we wanted to do," said Duncan. "We saw something in their defensive system that we could take advantage of, we wanted to get the ball into that space and whip it in to the back post. It's fun to see something you drew up win the conference tournament for you, but I can't take much credit for it. Chris put in the perfect ball, Brodacki had an incredible finish. If you're going to win the conference championship, you might as well do it in style."
On a cold, wet day that led to multiple missed opportunities for each side early in the match, it was the Central Arkansas defense that shined, limiting top-seeded Missouri State (9-5-3) to just four shots in the first 80 minutes of the match. MSU would turn on the pressure for the final 10 minutes, but UCA would buckle down, with Nate Lancaster tracking back to shut down a break away, Blake Stricker deflecting a shot off the post, and Jake Bates blocking a shot off of a rebound.
"We put a big premium on defense during our ten-day break leading up to the tournament," said Duncan. "The guys really committed to it, they trusted each other, they trusted the staff, and it justified everything we did. We worked the guys really hard, we put it on them, and they responded really well. They were incredible."
Sticker would get the first look of the day in the third minute, firing a rocket from 20 yards out, but MVC Goalkeeper of the Year Liam Priestley was able to make the save on what would prove to be first half's only shot on goal. Colton Jackson would fire wide in the seventh minute, and Missouri State would get its only look of the first period in the 10th minute, before Daltyn Knutson had a shot blocked in the 12th minute. Neither side would get another shot off in the final 33 minutes of the half.
Central Arkansas came out firing in the second half, with Pepe San Roman and Bates having shots blocked in the first five minutes and Knutson having a header saved by Priestley in the 56th minute, before Missouri State got the most dangerous look up to that point in the match, when Stuart Wilkin fired a laser to the back post. Central Arkansas goalkeeper Marc Olsen laid out, fully extending to push the shot wide.
Neither team would get another solid look until the 82nd minute, when MSU's Kyle Heibert fired a header high. That shot would open the gates, with Brodacki seeing a good chance saved by Priestley in the 86th minutes, and the UCA defense turning away four shots in the final two and a half minutes.
On the day, Missouri State outshot Central Arkansas 10-9, but UCA would hold a 4-3 edge in shots on goal. Brodacki put both of his attempts on goal, while Stricker and Knutson each put one shot on frame.
Following the match, San Roman, Stricker, and Tyler Ridener were named to the All-MVC Tournament team, while Brodacki earned Tournament MVP honors.
Central Arkansas will return to action on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bears will find out the details of their match tomorrow at 12:00 PM, when the bracket is revealed. Fans are invited to join the team in watching the NCAA Tournament Selection Show at UCA's weekly Bear Backers luncheon in the Hall of Fame Room at Estes Stadium.
"The selection show tomorrow should be fun," said Duncan. "It's always nice to be the automatic qualifier so you know you're in. The game will Thursday, so it's going to be a quick turnaround. So we're going to do some work on the bus home to try and make an educated guess about the pool of possible opponents, so that we