While a victory at the NJCAA Division I National Championships confirmed the Tigers belong, a loss clarified where they want to go.
Seeking to prove its worth against the nation's best, the Marshalltown Community College men's soccer team faced it first hand in opening match foe Tyler (Texas) Junior College - the eventual NJCAA National Champion.
Defeating the Tigers 2-0, the Apaches went on to win their third national title in four years - providing clarity to the level MCC must reach to continue building upon the success of this season.
The Marshalltown Community College men’s soccer team and coaching staff pose in front of the scoreboard following their NJCAA Division I National Championship pool play win over Jefferson College on Nov. 13 at Darton College in Albany, Ga. The Tigers entered the national tournament ranked 12th and eagerly await their final placing.
"We all learned what it takes to be there - what it takes to qualify and compete with those teams," said Tiger coach Rafael Martinez.
A day before defeating Jefferson College (Mo.) 2-0 in their pool play finale, the Tigers (14-6-1) gave Tyler its second stiffest test of four matches in the tourney - at least in terms of final score, only being surpassed by the Apaches' 1-0 overtime win over Louisburg in the championship match Saturday.
While a 2-0 victory over Jefferson gave the Tigers plenty of positives to take away from their tourney experience, including a likely top-10 finish in the national polls, their loss against Tyler may have been more beneficial for their growth in the long haul.
"I was impressed with the physicality of Tyler," said Martinez, whose squad is one of several in the ICCAC that play a more possession-oriented game on the ground.
"It's not that we underestimate the benefits of playing physical and having big, strong guys, but we focus on a different style of soccer."
That focus may change a bit starting next season.
"I think we can still implement some of what Tyler is doing to be more competitive. I look to increase our physicality and strength for the future, because you can tell that it's important," said Martinez, who felt the Apaches' physical play was the difference in their pool play win over MCC.
"That's what really got us in that game. We just didn't expect that level of intensity that Tyler brought from the very first minute."
Along with their brute force, Tyler also benefited from incredible depth.
"It looked like they had 20 starters. They were able to sub four at a time and their intensity never dropped. Their talent never dropped," said Martinez, who hopes to build his strength in numbers through a strong recruiting class - which was aided by playing in the national tournament.
"It has had an impact already. We've had a much better response from our early stages in recruiting and we expect it to become even better," said Martinez.
"Kids see that (MCC) is a quality program and that we're going to expose them to a good academics and a very competitive athletic program. We've seen the difference already, and we're excited about it, but I expect even more in the near future."
Along with increased exposure come heightened expectations.
"We can't just stop fighting and working hard because we made it this year. We are looking at next year to see if we can prove what we do," said Martinez, before quoting former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz.
"We have to keep growing or we start dying."
Following that mindset, the Tigers will need newcomers and returnees alike to step up for nine sophomore grads including All-Region first team selections Javier Lopez and Bruno Liozzi, second team honoree Joao de Olivera and both goalkeepers - Alfredo Piedra and Juan Castrejon. Tony Kaune, an All-Region honorable mention selection, also is among the departed along with Josh Illum, Jose Damanceno and Taylor McBurney.
"We're losing a lot of the starters, but that's happened before and we're used to that at the community college level," said Martinez, who knows his team is in good hands moving forward.
"They brought high expectations and that's what made the difference at the end. That will be hard to replace but I know that this year's freshman class is going to step up for next year."
Ignacio Bello, an All-Region second team selection and the team's leader in goals (8), is one of the key returnees along with Alex Galvan and Ralph Duopu that will lead the transition.
Despite the roster changes, Martinez is confident his team can recreate the success if they follow the principles that got the Tigers back to the tourney - trusting the process, believing in their system and playing as one.
"We played against more talented teams. We played against more physical teams," said Martinez.
"But we were successful because we played as a team."
NOTE: Final national rankings were still pending at the time of this article.