Trinity University stands atop the NCAA Division III men’s soccer poll, undefeated and exhausted. The Tigers (10-0) have played five of their last six games in 95-degree heat with humidity to match. They defeated Centenary in double-overtime on Sunday in Shreveport, La., arrived home at 1 a.m. on Monday, and hours later, headed to class for a round of tests.
How worn out are the players? Junior forward Daniel Ruano collapsed while standing in line for dinner after Sunday’s game. Senior goalkeeper Todd Whittaker did not sleep. After stepping off the bus, he pulled an all-nighter at IHOP, writing a 20-page paper for advanced senior chemistry.
“It’s been the most emotional and exhausting 9-0 I’ve ever experienced,” Trinity coach Paul McGinlay said before his Tigers defeated Southwestern University Friday night, 4-0. “We played five games in 10 days and had a 20-hour bus journey through North Texas and Louisiana and back home.”
Trinity is winning and struggling and making history, all at the same time. The Tigers began the season ranked No. 5 among 440 Division III teams. Their climb to the top marked the 14th consecutive season – believed to be an NCAA record – they’ve been ranked No. 1 for one week or longer.
The problem: Trinity sometimes plays down to its opponents. It took the Tigers two overtime periods to beat Centenary, a sub-500 team (4-5) that took only one shot-on-goal and made it.
The tight match prevented McGinlay from using his bench to rest fatigued starters.
The upside: The Tigers can play with the best. Last spring, they narrowly lost to a professional team in the United Soccer League, San Antonio FC, 3-2, in a scrimmage at home. “We had a chance to tie at the end,” McGinlay said, “but didn’t.”
This team ranks with the best in Trinity history – potentially as good as the 2003 team that went 24-0 and won the national championship. “We’re talented, experienced, hungry, creative and fit,” McGinlay said. “That’s not a bad set of attributes and it’s why I think, with a little luck, they could go far.”
A perennial Division III powerhouse, the Tigers are again loaded with Division 1-level athletes, three of whom, McGinlay said, possess pro potential: sophomore forward Austin Michaelis, the leading scorer with 14 points; sophomore midfielder Christian Sakshaug, who leads with five assists; and sophomore midfielder Laurence Wyke, who leads with 18 shots-on-goal.
Since 2003, eight Tigers have signed professional contracts, including Kyle Altman, a defender who captained the Minnesota Stars FC to the NASL Soccer Bowl Championship in 2011 and 2012. When Altman retired in 2013 to enter medical school at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, he became, perhaps, the strongest symbol of the powerful academic-athletic duality at Trinity. “He’s the poster child for our program,” McGinlay said.
The program sells itself. For 25 years, U.S. News & World report has ranked Trinity No. 1 among regional universities in the West. Since 1991, McGinlay owns a winning percentage (.839) that ranks among the top five in NCAA soccer history. “Why wouldn’t you want to come play here,” McGinlay asked.
Laurence Wyke was a gifted high school student and midfielder in Bolton, England when he received an email query from McGinlay. Trinity? Wyke intended to dismiss the note until he did a little online research. Trinity!
“I chose Trinity because of its academic reputability and its strong soccer program,” Wyke said.
He aspires to a professional career, and McGinlay believes Wyke can potentially play in the English Premier League. “But if I don’t make it in soccer,” said Wyke, who plans to major in business, “I can always fall back on my academics.”
What McGinlay has wrought is the stuff of make believe. He started the program in 1991 with an $18,000 budget. The Tigers competed on an undersized field – “a postage stamp,” McGinlay said – no college teams wanted to play on. McGinlay recruited with a landline telephone.
Athletic director Bob King remembers the challenges of those early years. “We used to ask, ‘How are we going to build this program?’”
A native of Corby, England, McGinlay had no money to travel beyond San Antonio. So he went after the best players in Bexar County. Come to a D-III school and get a D-I experience and world-class education. McGinlay came across as knowledgeable, passionate, authentic, and future stars began enrolling.
“We concentrated on San Antonio and built outwards to Austin, Houston and Dallas,” McGinlay said.
Then came the first international recruit, Yuri Ribeiro from Brazil, and soon after, the Tigers looked like the San Antonio Spurs of NCAA soccer. Recruits arrived from Norway, Mexico and England. “In the last six years,” McGinlay said, “we’ve had players from 10 countries.”
The “We Are The World” Tigers now have first-class facilities and a record no D-III team can match. Trinity has advanced to 14 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and 19 of the last 20. The Tigers have reached the finals twice, the semifinals three times and the quarterfinals on 10 occasions. They’ve won 18 Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) championships, and McGinlay has been named SCAC coach of the year 13 times.
Now here they are, ranked No. 1, and, by their own admission, trying to find their way. The Tigers held a team meeting Tuesday night to discuss fatigue, mental exhaustion and lack of execution, the kind of issues that rip lesser teams apart.
McGinlay reminded players they stand atop an “opinion poll,” that they haven’t won a national title in 13 years. When the meeting ended and the lights went out, another came on. One day later, McGinlay considered the talent, the schedule and the potential and smiled.
“The possibility for a bright ending,” he said “is definitely there.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that soccer player Yuri Ribeiro came from Australia. Ribeiro was born and raised in Brazil.
Top image: Trinity Soccer players sprint down field during a scrimmage. Photo by Scott Ball.