The draw wasn’t exactly what an at-large team wants to see, but Anthony Longo took it as an opportunity for the Indian Hills Community College women’s soccer program to prove it belonged on the national stage.
There’s no better way to approach playing the No. 1 team in the nation in your second game at the national tournament.
“You get ready and you go play,” said Longo, the Quincy Notre Dame graduate and son of QND girls soccer coach Mark Longo who is in his fifth season as the Warriors’ head coach. “You hope you’re prepared.”
Indian Hills lost 6-0 to top-ranked Tyler (Texas) Junior College in pool play Saturday at the NJCAA Division I Tournament in Evans, Ga., sending the Warriors home with a 1-1 record in the tournament and the strong belief they will return.
They proved they deserved that chance.
“We wanted to show we could compete,” Longo said. “We didn’t want to come here and not represent ourselves the right way. I think we showed we deserved the at-large bid.”
It’s validation, too, for the job Longo has done.
He took over the Indian Hills program in 2016 and promptly has guided the Warriors to the five best single-season records in program history. This group finished 12-3-1, improving Longo’s career record to 68-15-6.
Getting the Warriors to the national tournament trumps it all.
It’s been a constant battle for supremacy in the NJCAA Central District with Iowa Western, which has consistently earned the district’s automatic qualifier for the national tournament. The Reviers traditionally are ranked in the top 10 in the nation, often in the top five.
Recently, the Warriors have been nipping at their heels.
“If they were No. 5 in the rankings, then we were No. 6,” Longo said. “It’s been that close.”
This year, the NJCAA added at-large selections to the national tournament field, opening the door for the Warriors. The bids were announced May 28 with Longo and his staff finding out early in the day they have received one of the three at-large selections.
“We had about an hour there where we were like, ‘We’re finally there, finally there,’” Longo said. “Then all the planning stuff kicked in.”
The players didn’t find out until the selection show later that night, and their reaction was epic.
“We had a couple of camera angles set up,” Longo said. “It was fun to see it from their perspective and see them enjoy it.”
From there, it was work to get travel plans, meal plans, practice plans and everything else in order before the flight to Georgia. Once there, the Warriors and every other team went through a round of COVID-19 testing and had to wait for negative results before proceeding.
“After that, the stress really melted away,” Longo said.
Maybe not entirely.
Playing Spartanburg Methodist College in the opening game Friday, the Warriors were scoreless through regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods despite Indian Hills racking up 18 shots overall.
“If it’s a 2-0 game, we don’t break a sweat the rest of the time,” Longo said.
So the game went to a penalty-kick shootout.
Spartanburg missed its first three attempts, while Indian Hills made its first try and Madison K. Meyer, the QND graduate playing defense for the Warriors, buried the third attempt to help secure the 2-0 victory.
“She came in, stepped up and finished it,” Longo said.
And it reminded everyone Indian Hills belonged.
“You have little moments kind of like when that last penalty kick was missed and we finally won and you can sit there and say, ‘We got it done,’” Longo said. “Then it’s right back to work.”
The same thing will happen when the Warriors return home. There will be times to relish the experience before working on recruiting, offseason conditioning and preparations for the fall when college soccer season returns to its normal spot on the calendar.
“It’s definitely busy and definitely stressful, but it’s nice to say we’re here and we’ve made it,” Longo said. “It’s been five years in the making. We’ve come so, so close three of the last five years. So on a personal note, it’s nice to say, ‘Yeah, it’s about time.’”
The tournament berth and the opportunity to relish in it are both well deserved.