As the clock ticked down during the Missouri State soccer Bears’ 1-0 victory over Denver in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Bears became less aggressive on offense and let their defense handle the end of the game.
A couple of the most important pieces of that defense this season have been junior defender and Missouri Valley Conference Defender of the Year Kyle Hiebert and first team All-MVC defender Ben Stroud.
Stroud and Hiebert play center back, the middle two players of the Bears’ back four defenders. They are the ones who manage the defense and handle the tough assignments of shutting down opposing strikers.
If the stats are to be believed, they have done a stellar job.
Missouri State’s defense has only given up 11 goals all season — one of those being from a loss in penalty shots to Loyola Chicago in the MVC tournament championship game. That translates to a goals against average of .592, which is seventh in Division I.
“They have great chemistry together,” head coach Jon Leamy said of Hiebert and Stroud. “They’re two strong center backs that just know each other. They win a lot of head balls, and clog a lot of stuff up before it even develops.”
The pair have been playing together for a couple seasons and have continued to improve.
“We both got here around the same time,” Hiebert said. “We were both kind of fighting for a similar spot, but he’s an amazing player. I feel like we complement each other very well — he plays a little bit game than I do. All the credit in the world to him.”
The pair was able to shut down Denver’s leading scorer Judd Preston, who had seven goals on the season. The Pioneers frequently tried to use Preston’s speed to send the ball over the head of Hiebert and Stroud and allow him to go alone against senior goalkeeper Michael Creek. This strategy did not generate a shot attempt the entire game.
“(Preston) up front was very physical and quick,” Leamy said after the Denver game. “Our centerbacks did a great job dealing with him.”
The Bear’s defensive pair will have their hands full on Sunday, Nov. 23, against No. 9 Central Florida. UCF’s leading scorer, striker Cal Jennings, has scored 16 goals this season — tied for second in all of Division I. If the Bears hope to win the game, stopping Jennings will be a top priority.