|Furman senior Ben Hale became the first Southern Conference player ever to win Player
of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year honors Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
The Furman men's soccer team put in a lot of work on their home field on Fridays in the fall. That work has helped it have the chance to play there again this Friday. That's when the top-seeded Paladins host No. 4 seed Belmont at 6 p.m. in the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament.
There was plenty of uncertainty when Furman opened fall practice on Aug. 10. Three days later, that uncertainty went away as did the season when the SoCon postponed all fall sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a roster that includes six players from England, one from Wales and another from Iceland, there were plenty of virtual team meetings via Zoom but also plenty of soccer.
"We tried to have like Friday night lights every other week where we'd at least play games against each other, but then we got sick of playing against each other by the end of the fall," Furman coach Doug Allison said. "The guys came back in the spring pretty hungry. Our British guys hadn't had a haircut in five weeks, so they came back to America and got haircuts.
"It was nice and fresh to come back and play this spring, but it's also really bizarre. The ability to adjust has been the key for us. We're just lucky every day to be training and playing and be around each other every day. We don't take that for granted."
That work paid off when the spring season arrived. After an exhibition win over UNC-Asheville, the Paladins opened the regular season in grand style with a 3-0 win over South Carolina. Allison couldn't ask for a better momentum boost to take into the league schedule.
Furman (7-1-1, 5-0-1) opened SoCon play with a double-overtime win at ETSU, an overtime win at UNCG and a double overtime win over Mercer. The Paladins clinched their league-best 21st SoCon title with a 3-0 win on a windy, wet day at Belmont on March 30.
"After the fall, we were just so happy to play someone else. ... To beat a big name and a power-five school gave us a lot of confidence, but I told them that I could see that we will have to work hard to win anything," Allison said. "We're not just going to show up and win. The work rate of our kids has been unbelievable this year."
After an eight-year regular season title drought following the 2010 season, this year's team made it back-to-back crowns for the program with the most in SoCon history. On Thursday, Allison earned SoCon Coach of the Year honors for the second consecutive season. The league's all-time winningest coach (316 career wins) has earned the award nine times.
Allison's honor was part of a historic sweep of the SoCon hardware. Since the Goalkeeper of the Year award was created in 2014, no one had ever won both Player and Goalkeeper of the Year - until Thursday. Furman senior Ben Hale earned both awards after leading the SoCon with an .850 save percentage and an 0.73 goals against average. Hale allowed only six goals all season and had four of Furman's six shutouts.
"Hale has worked and worked and worked to rehab (an injury from 2019) and is absolutely back to his best," Allison said. "We ask our goalkeepers to keep us in games. We've had four overtime games in conference and he's kept us in them completely and given us a chance to win."
Forward Jake Raine, of Stoke, England, was co-Freshman of the Year in the league. Raine leads the Paladins with 11 points (five goals, one assist), including three game-winning goals. A league-high six Furman players made the first team. In addition to Hale and Raine, forward Shaun-Chris Joash (five goals), midfielders Miles Fenton and Callum Holland, and defender Cole McLagan made the first team.
Defender Tommy Kay was a second-team All-SoCon selection for Furman. Defender Josh Hosie and midfielder Sam Miller joined Raine on the All-Freshman team.
"Captains Miles Fenton and Cole McLagan have led us really well, but it's been hard work from everybody," Allison said. "Freshman Jake Raine and sophomore Shaun-Chris Joash have scored big-time goals, particularly in overtime. They're not fazed by who they're playing."
It's the second SoCon Goalkeeper of the Year honor for Hale, who also won in 2018. Hale led the Paladins to the second round of the NCAA Tournament that season, before injuries limited him to just four games last season. Hale was one of many injured Paladins that the squad overcame to win the SoCon regular season title in 2019 before being upset by Mercer in the SoCon Tournament semifinals.
With a healthy Hale and a battle-tested team this season, Furman's goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament. A return would give the Paladins ample opportunity to prove their current No. 25 national ranking in the Top Drawer Soccer poll.
The winner of Friday's semifinal between Furman and Belmont will face the winner of Saturday's semifinal game between No. 2 UNCG and No. 3 ETSU. A win on Friday would ensure that the Paladins play for the championship the following weekend in the friendly confines of Stone Stadium.
"With embassies, visas and all the different stuff, it wasn't easy to get everybody here on time. Experiencing college for the first time is tough for any freshman, whether they're foreign or domestic. It's particularly tough during this (pandemic) time," Allison said. "It was quite a bit of work to get everyone here, but it was well worth it. They really are an unbelievable group of kids.
"To be unbeaten in the conference and win it outright in this kind of environment, where there's no doing anything else. You have to stay in your room, and you can't do this and you can't do that. You've got to be disciplined and I'm really proud of what they've done this year because they're college students. They want to visit their friends and go see things, but they realize that to be able to train and play, they've got to sacrifice."