OREM — Imagine going 15-4-1 in a season that saw your team beat two top-20 opponents, one match of which they played a man down, and that saw your team win the regular season conference title with an 8-1-1 record but yet not get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately, in 2016, that is exactly what happened to the UVU men's soccer team. The Wolverines lost 1-0 to UNLV in the semifinals of the WAC Tournament and two days later, their fate was sealed when they didn't receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
It was bitterly disappointing for a team that was ranked in the top 25 in polls all season and had a better resume than some teams that did receive at-large berths.
However, UVU head coach Greg Maas isn't leaving anything to chance with the 2017 schedule.
The Wolverines will face six teams that made the 2016 NCAA Tournament starting with national powerhouse Akron on Aug. 25 at Clyde Field in Orem.
"We've been working on this schedule for roughly two years," Maas said. "The goal was to get the best opponent we possibly can. We knew that we were going to have a very mature, kind of senior-heavy team this year that we felt could handle the top-quality schedule that we were able to put together."
The season actually gets started with an exhibition match at Pac-12 foe UCLA on Aug. 16. The Wolverines and Bruins were unable to schedule a regularly-scheduled non-conference match but it is something that Maas believes will happen down the road.
UVU will face Cal State Northridge, Cal State Fullerton and San Diego State in a span of 10 days. The Wolverines travel to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies in a rematch of the 2016 season-opener that saw UVU win 2-1 despite playing a man down almost the entire second half. Three days following the Washington match, UVU will face Gonzaga in Spokane. The Wolverines won the 2016 match 1-0 over the 20th-ranked Bulldogs.
"We're really excited about our exhibition with UCLA," Maas said. "UCLA actually called us and wanted to see, first, if we were interested playing in a nonconference game in which we didn't have an opening and then, secondly, if we wanted to come down for an exhibition. We jumped at that opportunity.
"It will be great preparation for a home-opener that, just a few years ago, we could only dream about. Akron coming in, perennially one of the top five or 10 teams in the entire country, national champions a few years ago, is going to be a tremendous test for us. They're excited about playing not just the level and quality of our team and the program, but playing in front of really a true college atmosphere here at Utah Valley."
Not only is the nonconference schedule difficult, but the WAC is much better and the final three matches of conference play could determine the regular season champion. UVU faces 2016 WAC Tournament champion UNLV on Oct. 27 and follows that up two nights later at Grand Canyon, which is eligible for postseason play in the 2017-18 season. Grand Canyon boasts a 6,000-seat soccer stadium that Maas expects to be rocking on a Sunday night in Phoenix.
"There's no easy game in the WAC," Maas said. "The parity, game to game, is fantastic. Those are going to be three marquee matches to finish the season. I believe with all those teams, it will really determine the regular-season WAC champion."
The Wolverines finish off the season at home against Seattle University on Nov. 4. UVU hasn't defeated the Redhawks since the program started, and Maas believes that is one match that every one of his players has their eyes on.
"Thankfully, we do finish at home with Seattle," Maas said. "Honestly, if there was one game this senior class wants to win, it's that match against Seattle. No extra motivation is going to be needed there."
Kyle McDonald is sports fan who loves the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter at @kylesportsbias
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