---- — By William Bowman
The Daily Item
When Jeremy Payne says he expected the Messiah men's soccer team to be right where it is -- two wins from a Division III national title -- it might sound like boasting. But at Messiah it is expected.
The top-ranked Falcons (21-0-2) are heading to the NCAA Division III Final Four for the 10th time in last 12 seasons on the strength of a balanced offensive attack led by Payne, a Midd-West graduate.
Messiah takes on Loras College on Friday in one semifinal in San Antonio. The winner meets either Williams or Ohio Northern, the team that eliminated Susquehanna in the third round, in Saturday's championship game.
For the Falcons, the trip to the national semifinals has sort of become regular part of their schedule. Messiah has won eight national titles since 2000, including a pair of three-peats. And while it has not won since 2010, this is right where Payne thought the season would end.
"We have the same expectations every year," said the sophomore midfielder. "The standard is still the same and everyone on our team knows that. The team has definitely put in the work in order to get where we are."
Payne has played as big a role as anyone in the Falcons' success. He has started all 23 games this season, scoring a team-high 15 goals. He has added nine assists (second on the squad) and leads the way with 39 points, totals which earned him Middle Atlantic Conference Commonwealth Player of the Year.
It was a big jump forward after he started twice in 20 games last year, scoring six goals. It was just a matter of the hard working paying off.
"I gained a lot of confidence in the spring and that has definitely helped me as a sophomore," he said. "I am also surrounded by a lot of great players and we definitely make each other better."
The Falcons, with their national reputation, need to be ready each and every game during the season and into the national tournament. A single victory over Messiah, no matter when it comes, can make an opponent's season, a task that makes life difficult for Messiah.
"Everybody knows we have a target on our back and that everyone strives to beat Messiah," said Payne. "We have the mindset that every game is a big game and there is not a game that is more significant than another."
Since the end of the regular season, Messiah has really only been tested a couple of times, but they were big tests. It beat Lebanon Valley 1-0 in the Commonwealth title game and then outlasted rival York on penalty kicks in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Other than that the Falcons have won their other three postseason games by three goals.
The victory over York came on the road at York. Payne had an assist and then scored one of Messiah's four shootout goals.
"The tournament has been very tough so far," said Payne, whose team had a bye in the opening round. "If you look at the history of teams with a first-round bye a lot of those teams have not succeeded in the second round. And playing York in the regional semifinal was a tough game because they are a team that knows us very well. All of the games were challenging and each team gave us a different look that has prepared us well for the Final Four."
Payne said he does not now a ton about Loras (23-1-1), ranked fourth nationally, but the Falcons' focus always we will be on themselves.
"I know they have some big and tall guys up front. We will go over the scouting report a night or two before we play," he said. "But we do not read too much into scouting reports because we are more concerned about us and our play. We want to try and focus on trying to play the best soccer than Messiah can play."