In 2nd season in Heartland, Eagles look to apply lessons learned

Tom Tippeconnic (left) is one of five seniors on the OC men's soccer roster this season.
Tom Tippeconnic (left) is one of five seniors on the OC men's soccer roster this season.

OKLAHOMA CITY (Sept. 1, 2013) – Oklahoma Christian men’s soccer coach David Scott and the Eagles learned two things during their inaugural season in the Heartland Conference, lessons that should serve them well in 2013.

One, the style of play at the NCAA Division II level is more physical and athletic than in the NAIA, with bigger players. Two, the youthful Eagles aren’t that far away from being one of the better teams in their new conference home.

“One of the big adjustments we’ve had to make is in a few of the games that we didn’t get the result we thought we could, it just came down to, at times, being outworked or not adjusting to a more physical style of play,” Scott said. “Teams just didn’t let us kind of knock the ball around and play.

“It was eye-opening for the guys to see the type of games that are played at that level. We had kind of mixed results at times, but we competed with everybody we played against. We see the little things we need to fix and we’ll go from there.”

When OC opens its season on Thursday at Southern Nazarene, most of the Eagles’ key players will be back from a team that finished 8-9 and went 7-7 against Heartland foes – good enough for what would have been a third-place finish had the conference counted OC results in 2012.

“We’re still young, but very experienced now,” Scott said. “Most of the young guys played the majority of minutes last year, so it’s really helped through training, seeing those guys do well. It’s helped the younger guys understand things better. The level of training has been good.”

Competition for playing time should be fierce at many positions, but perhaps none more so than goalkeeper. Senior Connor Davenport broke into the starting lineup during the final third of the 2012 season and, despite playing mostly in a reserve role during his career, twice has been named as a conference defensive player of the week.

Meanwhile, freshman Evan Helker joined the OC roster with stellar credentials, having been named as the top prep goalkeeper in the Oklahoma City metro area this past spring. With two strong options, it seems Scott can’t go wrong no matter who’s in the goal.

“Connor played really well at the end of the season and Evan coming in has looked really sharp,” Scott said. “He is not the typical freshman goalkeeper. He’s a little bit ahead of the curve. Early in the season, instead of settling on one and giving him the job, we’ll give them both an opportunity for a little bit and see how things play out. … They’re both very good goalkeepers and they’re going to push each other.”

OC’s back line remains a bit of a mystery entering the season. Juniors Matt McLain and Angel Nisi are experienced, savvy defenders, but Scott is looking for a pair of other players to fill the other two spots. Options include senior Rigel Mathis – who has played well as part of the rotation in the defensive midfield the past two seasons – along with freshmen Ryan Johnson, Sergio Flores and Bill Hodge and sophomore Daniel Bolin.

“We’ve got some gaps to fill,” Scott said. “There’s a little bit of uncertainty. We’ll look to be more of a team than relying on individual players.”

Scott has a plethora of options in the midfield, starting with arguably the best player in the conference, junior Domenico DeGrazia, who led the league in assists with seven and was third in goals with eight (but only was named to the second-team all-conference list). There’s also speedy sophomore Ricardo Chinchilla, who had four goals and four assists last season while also receiving second-team all-conference honors.

Cody Cook is back from an injury that robbed him of most of what would have been his freshman season and Cole Rinke is a proven scorer as well, with a pair of scores in 2012. Taylor Vanderford, who showed great promise early in 2012 before also having his freshman season derailed by injury, also is back. Freshman Seth Brown also could figure into the midfield mix, along with sophomore Latham Liggett. Senior Francis Flair provides another experienced option and scored his first career goal last season.

Up front, the Eagles have dangerous forwards. Sophomore Brandon Little Axe showed flashes last season, with four goals and three assists, and should be a prime offensive threat. Freshmen Troy Tippeconnic has a knack for scoring goals, while sophomore Fraol Legesse (three assists in 2012) and senior Rodgers Otieno both have shown potential off the bench, as has senior Tom Tippeconnic. Another contender for playing time up front will be freshman Chris Ong.

“We have a lot of options on the attacking half of the field,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of creativity and technical ability.”

The Eagles’ schedule certainly won’t be easy. During nonconference play, the Eagles will visit Northeastern State, a team that reached the Division II quarterfinals last season, and host West Texas A&M, which entered the season at No. 1 in one national computer ranking.

Conference play will be different than in 2012, as league foes will play each other just once instead of twice and games will be on Saturdays and Mondays.