The No. 14 Loyola men’s soccer team (13-2-1, 6-1-1) is two wins away from the first Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) title in Loyola history. To get that title, the team must win the MVC tournament, hosted this year by Missouri State University, from Nov. 8- 13.
Loyola has enjoyed its best season since joining the MVC in 2013. Sporting a top-15 offense and defense, Loyola has been nothing short of dominant in the regular season. But according to head coach Neil Jones, the team is not satisfied and is eager to keep the ball rolling.
“Our goal has always remained the same — and that’s to win the conference, to advance to the NCAA tournament, to score more than one goal per game and concede less than one goal per game,” said Jones. “We haven’t achieved all of our goals, and the guys are hungry. There’s a lot of guys who have been here three or four years now and haven’t won the conference — haven’t advanced to the national tournament … so, there’s always that carrot that we’re still looking to get.”
The tournament is divided into four rounds. The sixth and seventh seed teams have a play-in game to enter the quarterfinals, while the top two seeds do not have to play a game until the semi- final round.
Loyola has this luxury as the top seed, but Jones said that it does not guarantee success, even though the Ramblers will be more rested than their opponents.
“[The hardest thing about the conference tournament is] playing against teams who are fighting for their lives and playing against seniors who are fighting for their lives,” Jones said. “On every team you’ll be playing against … seniors who know, ‘This could possibly be my last-ever college game.’ They don’t want their careers to end on that particular day. It’s do-or-die and everyone knows it, so the effort and intensity of the game has a raised level.”
None of Loyola’s 13 Division I teams have won a conference title since joining the MVC. But Jones said this is the year the Ramblers have their best shot at doing so. Senior defender Kirill Likhovid echoed this sentiment and said the bar has been set very high due to the team’s recent success.
“[N]ow that we’re at this point where [a title] is so attainable, I think everyone would be very disappointed if we did not win,” said Likhovid, a native of Arlington Heights, Illinois. “It’s all in our hands. It’s [our title to lose]. Winning trophies and championships is really important and it shows everyone around the country of how good we really are. If we win 12-13 games this season but no championships come of that, it doesn’t really say much.”
As a senior, Likhovid knows that the conference tournament is more than just a conference game; if Loyola loses, the team might not receive an at-large bid into the NCAA national tournament. He said it is up to him as a leader on the team to make sure all his teammates are focused and relaxed.
“I’ve had a lot of experience on how these games go,” Likhovid said. “[It] could … end some seniors’ careers. There’s a lot more at stake, but it’s important to not get all caught up in that. … As a fourth-year player, I need to get everyone on that … excited, but not-too-excited, nervous, but not-too-nervous level. If everyone’s on the same page, we’ll do very well.”
Loyola will not play a game in the tournament until Friday, Nov. 11, one week after the team’s regular season came to an end. Jones said he plans to use the extra time to make sure the team is rested and prepared for its opponent, which will be either the University of Central Arkansas or tournament host Missouri State University.