Reinhardt’s men’s soccer team will make its NAIA national tournament debut Saturday when it travels to top-seeded William Carey Saturday.
The Eagles (14-3-2) have been knocking on the door of the national tournament for some time, with two regular-season Appalachian Athletic Conference titles in the last five years, but they finally punched their ticket by finishing the job in the conference tournament.
“I’m just happy for the guys,” coach Joey Johnson said. “I know how much work they put it. It lets us move in a direction that’s positive for the program. I’m just glad they get the opportunity to represent the conference.”
Now that Reinhardt is in the tournament, Johnson said the next step is making some noise there.
In the Crusaders (17-0-1), Reinhardt will face an unbeaten team that has won seven games by three or more goals, but facing a tough test early could prepare the Eagles for a deeper run.
“I like the challenge early in a tournament,” Johnson said. “I think with teams like that, you have to be firing on all cylinders and be focused for an entire match. Margins are small in those games. We have to be focused and giving a great effort for 90 minutes.”
Reinhardt looked like it might be in this situation in early October, when a 1-0 over Truett McConnell in double overtime pushed the Eagles to 10-0-1 and capped an eight game winning streak.
They went 0-3-1 over their next four games, and while it pushed Reinhardt from the top seed in the conference tournament, a season-ending win over Talladega sparked a 3-0 run through the conference tournament for the title.
“It’s really pushed the boundaries of the program,” Johnson said. “We had some of those challenges late. It reignited some of the players and gave us a push toward the end of the season.”
During that four game run, Reinhardt outscored its opponents 11-0.
Defense has been a strength of the Eagles all season with 12 shutouts in 19, but goalkeeper Torge Wiedenroth and the rest of the Reinhardt defense will be tested against an offense that has scored 68 goals (3.8 per game) this season.
“We’ve been fantastic defensively,” Johnson said. “The relationships between those players in those positions is huge. They’ve bought into a disciplined approach. It’s always a team effort, though. Torge has had an outstanding season for us and been a great leader as well.”
As good as the defense has been, Reinhardt will likely have to score goals to advance in the tournament.
Todd Fidler (11 goals, seven assists), Aaron Whitten (12 goals, nine assists) and Taylor Gray (five goals, four assists) have spearheaded Reinhardt’s offense this season, and maintaining that balance will be key.
“The guys up top have all had god seasons,” Johnson said. “It was great we were No. 1 offensively and defensively in the conference. We were able to create dangerous situations and capitalize. Those guys have been the guys, but we’ve gotten great contributions from some guys off the bench too.”