Over the last half-decade, the Lipscomb men's soccer team has been slowly establishing itself on the national stage.
The Bisons won their first ASUN Conference tournament in 2017, subsequently earning the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. The next season saw Lipscomb become collegiate soccer's ultimate Cinderella story as the Bisons nearly made the Elite Eight of the College Cup, ultimately falling 2-1 on the road against No. 3 Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Last season, the Bisons returned for their third NCAA appearance in five seasons.
But 2022 has been different. Lipscomb currently sits at No. 10 in the latest United Soccer Coaches National Poll, not only the highest mark in program history, but the highest for any sports program at Lipscomb since the school's transition to Division I in the late '90s. They have been at the top of the regional rankings all season and have been in the national top-25 for the majority of it.
Across the program, since before the season even began, players and coaches both have felt that 2022 could be a special year for the team. So far, they've been correct.
"It's the most talented group that we've had since I've been here, for sure," head coach Charles Morrow said.
Morrow has been at the helm of the program since 2005, but his involvement goes back even further. He suited up for the Bisons on the pitch from 1994-1996 and was an assistant coach from 1996 through 1997.
One of the things Morrow pointed out that's different about his current squad is its depth. In the past, the Bisons might have relied on one or two key playmakers to carry them through a season. But this year, 11 different players have tallied at least two points. It feels as if they have three starting-caliber attackers coming off the bench every match.
"It's special in that our top-end guys are very good. But we are really deep as well," Morrow said. "It is a really dynamic and talented group. And then when you pair that with super capable, veteran players behind them [in the defense] it's a tough group to play against for sure."
Senior Jelldrik Dallmann, a transfer from Niagara, leads the team in goals with 11 and points with 24. Last season, he led the NCAA in goals per game. And even he hasn't started every match thanks to the depth in the attack.
Senior Hayes Wood, a Chattanooga native, has seven goals and two assists. Freshman Malachi Jones, a Grace Christian Academy alum, has notched six goals and three assists. Junior Tyrese Spicer has compiled three goals and six assists. They have a seemingly never-ending group of players capable of setting up or scoring a goal.
"I was talking with a scout earlier today, and his comment was, 'Hey, I've been watching a lot of the ACC games, and I've just started watching yours.' And I said, 'So you've watched ACC games, who is more dynamic in the attacking third than we are?' He said 'maybe Syracuse [the No. 4 team in the country]."
The roster has a good blend of impactful freshmen and entrenched veterans. The senior group especially has meant a lot to the program.
Thanks to every athlete being granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, an important group of fifth-year seniors were able to stick around for one last ride, including four-time ASUN All-First Team member Noah Gulden, who leads the team with eight assists despite being a defender, and his twin brother Scott, the team captain and an all-ASUN performer as well.
"The seniors, to me, are my best friends," Scott said. "Most of them I've played four or five years with. But the most important thing is not that we don't have groups or anything, not even just me and the seniors. It's like the whole team is one group.
"We knew before the season started that it could be like this," he continued. "Obviously, we didn't know for sure if it was going to be like that, but we knew we had great guys coming in and we knew we had a great team from last year."
Morrow highlighted how important this group of seniors has been in changing the program for the better.
"We challenge all of our guys to come in and leave the jersey in a better place and leave your mark on the program," Morrow said. "By all accounts, that senior group has done just that."
Jones isn't the only local alum making an impact for Lipscomb. Father Ryan graduate Will Turner and Ravenwood alum Nick Dang are key members of a stout Bisons backline. Independence alum Hunter Bossman and Malachi's brother Levi, also a GCA grad, are on the roster as well.
"I think you could tell just from the first two weeks of preseason that there was for sure something special with this team," Malachi Jones said. "It's been a blessing to come in as a freshman, being able to play the minutes that I've been able to play and seeing the results that we've been able to have just based off of all these guys' hard work.
The local connection has made the program feel immediately like home for Jones.
"Coming from Grace Christian Academy where I knew so many people in this area, in this community, and you can even see it in games. There’s so many of them that show up to each and every home game. It's just been really special to know that there’s so many people in this community so close to home that support you. It's like I didn't really move out from my home. I just extended my family a bit by coming to Lipscomb."
The Bisons are 11-1-2 on the season. Their lone loss came on the road at Kentucky, currently the top team in the country according to RPI and the No. 2 team in the Top-25 rankings, by a 3-2 deficit.
Playing in a mid-major conference like the ASUN means needing to schedule as many difficult matchups as possible in the non-conference to earn higher rankings, a better seed in the NCAA Tournament, and potentially even a first-round bye.
"It's just sort of a progression," Morrow said. "We're not trying to fly all over the country to play teams, but at some point as your program grows and develops, you get to a level that have to travel a little bit to find teams that really make sense to play and that help grow and develop your team."
With just two games left in the regular season, the Bisons have high hopes for where they can go in the postseason. Another conference title or NCAA bid? Improving upon the Sweet 16 run? Morrow says it's all potentially on the table.
"If you're not trying to win at all, then what are you trying to do?"