The Elon University men’s soccer team’s approach to nonconference scheduling is not unique among small programs in non-power conferences.
The team knows that in order to garner national attention and catch the eyes of the national polls — and even the NCAA tournament selection committee — it needs to stack its nonconference slate and boost its tournament resume.
Elon’s players embrace the challenge. They consider matches against difficult opponents from power conferences an opportunity to prove themselves on the big stage.
“You don’t want to put all your eggs in the conference basket,” said senior goalkeeper Nathan Dean. “It’s good to play those difficult nonleague games on the road to boost your RPI so that we have a chance to get into the national tournament.”
The difficult slate started right away, as the Phoenix beat the University of South Carolina 1-0 in an exhibition on Aug. 19, and lost to North Carolina State University, a perennial contender from the Atlantic Coast Conference, 1-0 in another exhibition Aug. 23.
The beginning of the regular season doesn’t get any easier, as Elon will travel to Durham for the John Rennie/Nike Classic hosted by Duke University. There, Elon will first play Stetson University Aug. 29, followed by Loyola Marymount University on Aug. 31.
Next, the Phoenix heads south to Wilmington for the UNC Wilmington Classic, where it faces Winthrop University on Sept. 5 and Ohio State University on Sept. 7. Both will offer stern tests right off the bat.
“We were looking at a situation where it was a no-brainer,” said head coach Chris Little. “All the teams have been in the national tournament consistently in the last few years. Both [tournaments] are relatively local, with great environments and against some of the best teams in the country.”
Elon’s difficult nonconference slate doesn’t stop there. On Sept. 14, the Phoenix will host West Virginia University, which was upset 3-2 at Rudd Field two years ago by the Phoenix while ranked No. 18 in the nation.
Twelve days later, the Phoenix travels to Conway, South Carolina, to try and make it two victories in a row against Coastal Carolina University after beating the sixth-ranked Chanticleers 2-1 last year at Rudd Field to break a four-game losing streak against its regional rival.
The Chanticleers, ranked No. 17 in the NSCAA/Continental Tire Division 1 Men’s National Pre-Season rankings, were Elon’s rival in both of its NCAA tournament appearances in 2011 and 2012. What’s more, the two teams played regular season matches in both seasons, which resulted in Chanticleers wins, as did the two tournament games.
“They’re a great test for us,” Little said. “Obviously, we’ve played each other numerous times over the last several years, and they’ve always had a ton of talent. It’s a game that we’re all looking forward to.”
Two more manageable games against Florida International University and in-state foe High Point University, neither of which broke .500 last year, are the only breathers mixed in to what is otherwise a daunting slate. But that’s exactly the type of challenge Little wants for his team.
“We’ve always been in the top 30 in the country the last several years,” Little said. “We want to continue that. A lot of that ranking is determined by your RPI, which is based on your strength of schedule. To meet those standards, we have to play a tough schedule, and that’s always been our philosophy.”
At this point, Dean and his teammates have come to embrace their coach’s philosophy.
“Difficult games boost our RPI, but it also prepares us for the big games we’ll have in conference play,” Dean said. “That’s been a big help to us in the past few years.”