Family Ties Could Fuel Deep Postseason Run For TU Soccer
Inside a conference room within the Hurricane Athletics Building located on the University of Tulsa's campus, the TU men's soccer team anxiously awaited their post-season fate Monday afternoon.
With their eyes fixated on a laptop computer's desktop image projected onto a viewing screen, they watched the NCAA's selection show webcast.
The suspense couldn't have been that brutal because at least the team knew they had already automatically qualified by winning Conference USA's league tournament.
When their team was announced, the room erupted in celebration: Not only did TU earn the #11 overall seed; it also meant the Golden Hurricane received a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament format of 48 teams.
TU will travel to Florida this weekend to face the winner of South Florida - Florida Gulf Coast. But according to head coach Tom McIntosh, their team objectives were unaffected by the seeding.
"Our goal is to win a national championship," said McIntosh after addressing the team. "And we've been in this enough to understand that this is a process of getting better and getting better."
And the program has done that under McIntosh, who's finishing his eighteenth season as the Golden Hurricane's head coach. TU has reached the NCAA Tournament six times since 2000, two of those appearances ended in the quarterfinal (fourth) round. The most recent was a quarterfinal appearance in 2010.
While the program has consistently performed at a very high level in recent years, for any college sports team to take next step, the talent level has to rise as well. And it could be a standout freshman from Union High School that puts TU soccer over the top.
Cristian Mata led Conference USA in goals and points. According to McIntosh, Mata was overlooked as a top 50 prospect by the national publications.
The way Mata explained it, "I just really thought I could come here and help the team."
Cristian has done just that. In addition to his prolific goal scoring, he also ranked near the top of league in assists. But Mata's setup man has a history with Cristian: it's his older brother Omar.
"[Cristian] is a goal scorer. He always has been. So it's great to have him here with us," said junior midfielder Omar Mata.
It's an ideal setup. The one sibling is a midfielder setting up the play while the other is the goal scoring "closer". The combination has helped make Tulsa the highest scoring team in Conference USA.
"It's always been fun playing beside [Omar], getting passes from him," said Cristian. "It's going well so far but we're not done yet."
Having a lifetime of experience working together is something that can't be coached. Even coach McIntosh admits they operate on a different wavelength.
"We sometimes have to tell Omar to stop passing to Cristian," McIntosh said jokingly. "There's other guys on the field! But they do work well together.
Even if TU doesn't reach their ultimate goal this year, the Mata brothers still have one more season to try and accomplish it together.
"It's a great experience to have [Cristian] with me," explained Mata.
"I mean it's a great experience just to do it myself. But to have my brother with me -- the cherry on top."