Aug. 30, 2014 couldn’t come soon enough for the Utah Valley University soccer team. It was the first soccer game at Clyde Field for the brand-new soccer program, which had been practicing for a year for this home opener.
That was a great day for men’s soccer in the state of Utah as the state’s lone Division 1 program overwhelmed its visitors from the University of Massachusetts by a 5–1 count. Now, in just their third season, the Wolverines are in the process of creating something special at the west end of University Parkway.
Brighton High graduate Skyler Milne, one of just three seniors on this year’s team, was among the nine players who trained for a full year at UVU before that opening game night finally arrived. He knew pretty quickly that he was part of something good.
“That was our first-ever experience, we can actually kick someone else, not kick ourselves,” Milne said. “We rose to the occasion, we put goals away quickly and that was a great memory, and that’s when it hit me that this team can be something real special and I think we’ve done that.”
Rapid rise in rankings
It’s not normal for a brand-new program to jump into Division 1 competition in any sport and quickly gain national prominence, but head coach Greg Maas and the Wolverines have been anything but common. After going 9-7-2 in that inaugural campaign (5-3-2 in Western Athletic Conference play), UVU was 14-6-2 in 2015, reaching the title game of the conference tournament, which it lost to Seattle in a shootout. Soon after, the second-year program received an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
“We were very fortunate last year, to break in as a second year program, into the national Top 25 and we also had one of the Top 20 recruiting classes in the country, something that was unique to the university,” Maas said. “We’ve had some tremendous benchmarks. I know these guys take one game at a time and the next most important game is that next one, but ultimately our goal is to win the WAC championship and bring a trophy back for this program and to the university and see if we can’t improve on our run from last year in the NCAA Tournament.”
“I know these guys take one game at a time and the next most important game is that next one, but ultimately our goal is to win the WAC championship and bring a trophy back for this program…” —Greg Maas, UVU head soccer coach
This year, UVU is off to a 7–2 start, with the only losses coming on the road to Sacramento State and nationally-ranked Loyola Chicago. The Wolverines also own a win over a Gonzaga team that was No. 20 at the time the two squads met. Its play has vaulted this relative NCAA newcomer as high as No. 8 in the polls and the Wolverines currently sit at No. 21 in the NSCAA coaches’ poll and No. 10 in the initial RPI released this week.
How does a program go from zero to Top 20 status practically overnight? Maas looks no further than the people who sign his paycheck.
“Credit to the University, to be quite honest with you,” Maas said. “(They had) an opportunity for the coach to be put in place a year and a half in advance and that allowed me to make sure I hired the right staff around me, and it gave us time to not feel rushed to identify prospective student-athletes, in assembling our original roster that included players from Germany to our own backyard here.”
Senior defender Alex Neff is another member of the original nine. He’s been there from the beginning.
“All of the players that came in were the best on their teams growing up and weren’t used to losing,”Neff said. “I think that mentality that we get all these players in this one place and get all of that expectation we hold up for ourselves, that’s one of the real reasons we are where we are. Also, the coaching staff here at Utah Valley is unbelievable. They expect nothing short of greatness and we train to that ability every single day.”
Utah players staying home
Neff and Milne came to Orem with a different experience level from that of most of their teammates. Neff played his freshman season as part of the PDL program at Brigham Young University, while Milne spent a year in club soccer at the University of Utah. Both players grew up in Utah at a time when the state had no Division 1 program to which they could aspire.
“I did have opportunities to go (out of state), but to be completely honest, it was hard for me to leave and I just kept thinking over and over again about family,” Neff said. “I think I made the right decision because I look where I am and where we are right now. I couldn’t dream it any other way.”
Now, youth soccer players in the state have an option. There is not only a Division 1 soccer team in Utah, but an elite-level program. That’s also been great in a community that loves the game.
“Here in Utah County, the atmosphere for youth soccer is huge. There’s so many club teams and youth teams down here,” Neff said. “They develop great players here in Utah, and growing up there wasn’t a Division 1 program in Utah so people had to leave if they wanted to play. Now, we’ve got camps and we bring high school people. People want to play here because they know who we are. They know what kind of program Utah Valley is so more and more people are going to want to play here.”
Coaching from the backyard
Maas is not a Utah native, but he came to the state in 2001 with his eye on coaching at the collegiate level at some point. As a leader in the state’s youth soccer development, he’s been a witness to a lot of change.
“I came here as the technical director of Utah Youth Soccer, so I’ve seen the growth of soccer here in Utah since I arrived, since the inception of Real Salt Lake,” Maas said. “We have, per capita, one of the largest youth state soccer associations in the country. We’ve been very fortunate in our first two years to be No. 12 and No. 16 in home attendance, so there’s a lot of interest and excitement about not just our team, but the university in general. We hope that continues to grow and our outreach into the community is instrumental in that.”
The success of soccer at UVU also opens doors for the state’s youth soccer players even if they don’t land on the roster at the in-state school.
“Without question, we’re trying to identify and keep the best available student-athletes in Utah, right here in our backyard,” Maas said.
Strong up the middle
Maas talks about the strength of this team coming from its spine, from the goalkeeper to the center backs, where Neff leads the way, through the midfield, where you see players like Aaron Meyer and Connor Salmon, to Milne, the central striker. Add two tremendous wingers in Karson Payton and Paul Hoffmeister, who’s from Germany, and you have the key to success.
Milne feels it all revolves around the coaching staff finding players who are unselfish, players who fit the UVU profile.
“I think the coaching staff does a good job of not picking just the best players, but picking the right players,” Milne said. “Of course, we have the 12th-ranked recruiting class this season, which is a huge help, but every year, it’s not always the best guys that come in, it’s the right guys that come in. Every player on this team puts the team before they put themselves.”
It’s all part of the atmosphere Maas has created for his program and it reflects who he is as a coach.
“The relationships that we have in the local, national and international soccer community has really given us a great foundation of development for these young men,” Maas said. “Our academic programs around the university are really an equitable balance between the athletics and the academics for the players, so it allows them to really excel in the classroom and on the field here. For us, it’s about creating that culture, that personality and really a professional environment that kids are really excited just to be around.”
“It’s not always the best guys that come in, it’s the right guys that come in. Every player on this team puts the team before they put themselves.” —Skyler Milne, UVU senior
The coach and his team don’t spend a lot of time worrying about national rankings, but they acknowledge it’s nice to be noticed.
“I’m not in charge of the polls, so maybe they know something that I don’t know, but there’s no question this is a Top 25 program, and if we continue to win, we’re going to earn the respect throughout the country and we’ll see how things end up,” Maas said. “I believe in our players and believe in the direction that our staff approaches this team. It’s a talented group of young men.
“Maybe we’ve arrived just a little bit earlier than anticipated, but that’s a true credit to them buying into our approach to each and every game and not trying to let outside distractions get in the way of our focus to try to get better every day on the pitch. We’ll continue to enjoy the moment we’re at because moments like this are often fleeting and we’re hoping that we continue to build a program for the long run here at Utah Valley.”
The UVU men’s soccer team play at Seattle University on Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. MT before returning home for a game against CSU Bakersfield on Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. MT. See the whole season schedule here.