Milligan at home in first round of league tourney

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com
Both Milligan soccer teams will take aim on trying to come away with first place in their conference tournament this week, as the men's and women's squads go out defending their turf in the first round.
The men come into Saturday's contest as a number four seed, where they'll face off against Covenant, a team they beat 2-1 earlier this season.
Starting time is 1 p.m.
The Lady Buffaloes are a number three seed, which wasn't decided until their final matchup (vs. Union), dropping them from first, and will meet up with Montreat at 4:30 p.m.
On Saturday each of the Milligan teams has a chance to advance if they can overcome a tough season, which has seen the men recovering from injuries and the women having to step up their play to get past their inexperience.
The expectations for the men coming into the season were simple: Win the conference and get a berth in the regionals.
"We set our goal to win the conference and, for the first time since I've been the head coach here, get a berth into the regional playoffs," said coach Marty Shirley. "We finished the season at 11-7-1, which fell short of our goal, but I'm proud of the boys. They played real well."
Milligan had a couple of close losses on the year, and after all was said and done they came in fourth in conference play.
"We lost a couple of games we shouldn't have lost, but that's how the game is. You might be the better team but not end up in the win column," said Shirley.
One of the problems that the Milligan men have had to face is the amount of injuries they've received throughout the year.
"We had a lot of injuries this season, and it's probably more than I've ever seen in my six years of collegiate coaching," said Shirley. "We had a guy with a cracked vertebra; our striker, who had scored eight goals in seven games, blew out his ACL; and several arms broke and concussions, which kept kids out of games."
The Buffs experienced some letdowns throughout the year, and a loss to King and tie with a team which was winless in 12 games hurt their efforts.
"We lost two weeks ago and that was probably our most disappointing loss -- we had them down 3-1 and let them come back to beat us 4-3," said Shirley. "We tied Union, which was 0-12 at that point on the year, and we did it with a skeleton crew, but we didn't get the job done."
In their final game on the season, the Buffaloes executed probably their best game of the year by defeating Tennessee Wesleyan, 3-1
"That was probably our smartest game yet as far as executing a gameplan and sticking to what exactly we were going to do," said Shirley.
Milligan will look to Ali Mohamed to lead the way, as he's been an All-American the past two season and has 17 goals so far this year.
"He's scored 17 goals and seven assist, and I'm looking for him to have a big game for us," said Shirley. "We have a senior, Brian Okumu, which his next game might be his last, so he's stepped it up the last several games. We have Steven Townley, who has played three games up top and scored six goals, plus we have a couple of good goalkeepers in Joel Wanyoike and Jordan Fode."
As far as the women's outlook goes, the Lady Buffs were nipped out of first place in an ending-season battle with Union, dropping the match 4-0 after an intense schedule of play.
"Our last game came down to who would win the conference, and we played poorly," said Lady Buffs coach Dave Dixon. "It came down to us, VI and Union, and we just couldn't put it together."
The Lady Buffs have been recognized as having the toughest schedule in the nation, as four of their matchups pinned them against top 25 opponents.
"We're almost assured a spot in the regional tournament despite the conference outcome, but what I'd like to really see us piece together some consistency in back to back games," said Dixon. "I'm looking to see if we can perform at a high level because that's what playoff games are about.
"Next week we'll have a three-game stretch where we can have a chance at the national tournament."
The Lady Buffaloes came away with a 1-3 record against the nation's top opponents, and this level of competition possibly gives them an advantage come Saturday.
"We played four top 25 teams all on the road and we went 1-3 during that stretch," said Dixon. "We had three big conference games and one huge out of conference game, and that came back to haunt us in our last game. We didn't have our legs under us and were feeling the fatigue."
The confidence level of the Lady Buffaloes is well, though. They have given a good effort in their tough battles and feel like they have a chance of beating any team in the conference.
"I feel like going into the conference tournament that there's not a team that we can't beat," said Dixon. "Union was the only team we didn't play well against, but if we play well we can beat any team out there."
One disadvantage the Lady Buffaloes is the inexperience they have.
"We've brought in a lot of new players, and many of them are freshman and sophomores, so we took our lumps in some games," said Dixon.
The biggest strength of the Lady Buffs is the senior leadership of Bianca Spoto.
Spoto has scored more than half of Milligan's goals and was named NAIA region and conference player of the week earlier in the season.
"She's scored 22 out of 38 goals this season and has two assists, so she's been a part of 24 of our goals," said Dixon. "Seventy percent of our offense will graduate, so we'll see next year how good some of our younger players really are."
Milligan will need a few other to contribute in order to make their run all the way through, as they've had good play of late from Kim Morris and Jackie Goncalves.
"We've had some players step up and contribute in the attack, so hopefully we can keep that going into the playoff stretch and run," said Dixon. "It's like we tell the players -- you have to have a good two- or three-game stretch to get yourself through to a national tournament."