After years of blood, sweat, tears and a belief in the process, the Tigers' moment is here.
The Marshalltown Community College men's soccer team returns to the NJCAA Division I National Championship tournament for the first time since 2007 - a reward not only for the current players but the many before them who restored a foundation shaken by recruiting violations under previous head coach Marcelo Serrano.
Just 24 months removed from a three-year skid of postseason sanctions, the Tigers travel to Albany, Ga. - the site of this year's tourney - knowing they're representing more than just themselves.
T-R PHOTO BY TYLER STRAND
Marshalltown Community College men’s soccer coach Rafael Martinez speaks with his squad during Thursday’s practice in front of next week’s NJCAA Division I National Championship. Martinez was an assistant coach the last time the Tigers reached the national tournament in 2007.
"Without a doubt, we couldn't do it without the players and assistant coaches (Creighton Jenness and Allie Osmundson) that have been here with us. They are part of this," said MCC coach Rafael Martinez, who took the reins in 2010 and improved upon a 6-9 campaign that year with a 12-5-1 mark in 2011.
"They got this going again and built the high expectations we are performing under now."
An assistant on the Tiger team that claimed third at the national tourney five years ago, Martinez directed the program's rebuilding effort finding student-athletes willing to sacrifice for a greater good - the future of MCC soccer.
NJCAA Division I Men's Soccer National Championship
Monday, Nov. 12
Marshalltown CC vs. Tyler (Texas), 11 a.m.
Monroe (N.Y.) vs. Oakton (Ill.), 1:30 p.m.
Louisburg (N.C.) vs. Northwest (Wyo.), 4 p.m.
Darton St. (Ga.) vs. Western Wyoming, 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Nov. 13
Cincinnati St. (Ohio) vs. Northwest, 11 a.m.
Illinois Central vs. Oakton, 1:30 p.m.
Western Texas vs. Western Wyoming, 4 p.m.
Jefferson (Mo.) vs. Marshalltown CC, 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Nov. 14
Darton vs. Western Texas, 11 a.m.
Louisburg vs. Cincinnati St., 1:30 p.m.
Monroe vs. Illinois Central, 4 p.m.
Tyler vs. Jefferson, 6:30 p.m.
That future is now.
The 12th-ranked Tigers (13-5-2), seeded ninth out of 12 teams, battle a pair of perennial powers in Tyler (Texas) Junior College (17-2-1) and Jefferson (Mo.) College (14-5-1), seeded fourth and fifth respectively.
MCC opens pool play against fourth-ranked TJC Monday at noon EST. Claiming back-to-back national titles in 2009 and 2010, the Apaches are making their fourth straight appearance in the tourney and their eighth overall after tying for third last season.
The Tigers face Jefferson College, ranked No. 9 in the country, Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Capturing a national championship in 2006, the Vikings return to the dance for the fourth time capped by a fifth place finish in 2007. They did not tangle with the Tigers in the tournament that year, though Jefferson faced MCC's other adversary earlier this season losing a 2-1 decision to the Apaches in Tyler, Texas Sept. 2.
"We know that they're very strong programs that like to play the game very fast. The tempo and intensity of the games are high and luckily we've been playing with teams like that in the (ICCAC) all year long," said Martinez.
Pool play runs Monday through Wednesday with the winners of all four pools advancing to the semifinal round Friday followed by the championship match Saturday.
Both MCC opponents will provide a telling litmus test as each faced top-seeded tournament host Darton State College (17-0-0) earlier this season. The Apaches lost a 2-1 decision in their season opener to the Cavaliers in Houston, Tex., while the Vikings fell by the same score to the No. 1 ranked squad on the road. Jefferson also faced another tournament team this year, No. 7 seed Illinois Central, losing 3-2 in overtime.
Coming off a Region XI championship run that included victories over a pair of then top-10 ranked foes, the Tigers know where they stand.
"We haven't beaten the No. 3 (Iowa Western) or No. 9 (Iowa Central) team in the nation because we are lucky. We have worked really hard for that - we have improved," said sophomore defender Javier Lopez, the team's co-points leader (19), with seven goals and five assists.
"It's a really good moment for us to go to the tournament and prove that it wasn't luck. We are at this level and we have to believe in that."
It's a not hard sell for their coach, who saw his squad continually raise its game against top-notch talent in the league.
"That's one of the good things of playing in such a tough conference. We get a taste of those big teams in the country - that really good quality and the high intensity - throughout the entire year," said Martinez.
"I don't think that part will surprise us. Obviously (Tyler and Jefferson) are very good, we expect that. I think that we're good too."
One adjustment the Tigers are preparing for is all the potential distractions that surround the national tournament including the presence of coaches and scouts from every level in the country along with a variety of ceremonies and activities. Having been through it before, Martinez has honed his squad's concentration on the task at hand.
"They know that we need to focus on the soccer part. We get to enjoy the rest and we've earned that, but we need to focus on what we're there to do - play soccer," said Martinez.
After a physically and emotionally draining surge through regional play, the Tigers had a welcome respite with a week of active recovery followed by a week to sharpen their play.
"Throughout the season we've had some injuries that people just toughened out and they played through them. These two weeks have allowed us to give a few people the time off to recover," said Josh Illum, a sophomore defender and former Bobcat.
The time off also allowed the Tigers a bit of reflection on the journey, while also eagerly anticipating what lies ahead.
"This is a great opportunity and experience for all of us. Not many other teams and players have this chance to go to nationals," said Tony Kaune, a sophomore defender from Mason City.
"To beat the No. 3 team in the nation and for us to go (to nationals) - you can't forget that. It's something that will stay with you the rest of your life."
Martinez applies the same big-picture approach when detailing the Tigers' return to national prominence.
"I'm very happy for this group but also for the groups before. They can see that there was a mission and a process and they were part of it. They deserve it just as much as these guys. We think of them in this moment," said Martinez.
Hoping to create some more magical moments in the postseason, Martinez believes the tournament will be a reward in itself for his squad.
"Competing with the very best in the country will give them the opportunity to continue growing as athletes and as people," said Martinez.
If that growth process can continue through Saturday, all the better.
"My hope is that we step up to the occasion," said Martinez. "And I think we're going to do it."
NOTE: Fans can follow the Tigers online with a live video feed at NJCAA TV. An online link to the site can be found on the MCC Athletics home page.