The Creighton men's soccer team is leaving some rivalries behind in the Missouri Valley Conference and waiting to see which foes will fill that void in the BIG EAST, but in the meantime, the Bluejays should not have to look far for a replacement.
Even if that team represents what was a Division II football and wrestling powerhouse that didn't even field a men's soccer team just a few years ago.
Friday, the Omaha Mavericks traveled a couple miles east on Dodge Street and ended up at Morrison Stadium for an exhibition match with the sixth-ranked Bluejays. The Mavericks, embarking on just their third season with a men's program, left the Creighton campus with a 1-1 draw.
Some might look at the Mavericks' 6-21-2 record over the past two years and scoff at the idea it qualifies as a suitable rival for a team that has played in back-to-back College Cups, as the Bluejays have. However, the Mavericks have made impressive strides since their inaugural 2011-12 campaign. Omaha coach, and former Creighton assistant under Bob Warming, Jason Mims was given an extremely short amount of time to field a team that season, and the 1-11-1 record was the result.
The team that battled the Bluejays squarely for 90 minutes looked like a team destined to improve on last year's 5-10-1 record and fourth-place finish in the Summit League. Whether it was Vance Rookwood's bicycle kick in the first half that was destined to find the back of the net before Bluejay keeper Alex Bolowich deflected it out for a corner kick, or his curling left-footed shot that beat Bolowich and tied the score in the second half, the Mavs showed a surprisingly high level of skill for such young program.
A different look at things shows that in the three times the teams have met in exhibition matches, they have split evenly. Creighton won 1-0 last fall, before dropping a 2-1 contest in the spring, and the teams tied on Friday. Even though his team has shown well against the Bluejays, the Mavericks coach wasn't quite ready to call the matchup the start of a rivalry.
"I don't know if it's a rivalry yet," said Mims. "Creighton is, they are very good. They've been to two straight final fours, probably on their way to a third-straight final four, so I'm not sure."
It didn't appear the 22 players on the Morrison Stadium pitch got that memo. Friday's scrimmage was competitive, physical and sometimes chippy. A total of six cards were shown throughout the match. The Mavericks' Craig Buettner was cautioned twice and sent off with a red card in the 83rd minute. Things reached a boiling point only minutes earlier when an Omaha attacker bumped Creighton keeper Alex Bolowich while he was handling the ball. Bolowich took exception to the run in and verbally confronted the Maverick who collided with him. By time it was settled many words and a few shoves were exchanged and the referees worked to squash the skirmish. Both Bolowich and Omaha's Emir Alihodzic were carded for their actions.
"That happens. That's part of being competitive," said the elder Bolowich. "UNO was competitive. We obviously don't want to back down, and so that stuff happens."
Rivalries run deeper than the proximity of the campuses, or testy moments on the playing field. The constant competition spills into other parts of the team, athletic department and university.
Pieces of this were on display Friday night. It wasn't just the couple hundred people decked out in black and red on a warm August night or the fact that some were already referring to the game as the "Omaha Derby".
The sign of a budding rivalry could be seen in the jersey donned by Mark Moulton. Moulton, a freshman from Omaha Creighton Prep, was a highly sought after recruit less than a year ago. He had drawn interest from both the Mavericks and Bluejays, and Friday night, he was wearing the Omaha uniform. This is likely just the beginning of recruiting battles between the two schools, as both coaching staffs will hope to land Nebraska's top talent. This season, Creighton has three freshmen that stayed in state to play collegiate soccer; the Mavericks have four.
Omaha's once-dominant football and wrestling programs no longer exist. They were casualties of the university's decision to move the athletic teams to Division I. It appears that Trev Alberts and the rest of the Maverick athletic department are focused on fielding competitive basketball and soccer programs in the absence of football and wrestling programs, a strategy Creighton has successfully employed for years.
The Omaha basketball team plays in the Ralston Arena, which opened less than a year ago. Caniglia Field, the Maverick's old football stadium in the middle of campus, is being rebuilt as a state-of-the-art home for the Omaha's fútbol teams. The new, soccer-specific stadium should only help Mims' program attract talented recruits in the coming years. By 2015, when the Mavericks become NCAA tournament eligible and complete the transition to Division I, Omaha should be in position to field teams capable of challenging Creighton – if they haven't already.
"Right now, you know, we are waiting for them to be NCAA eligible," said Coach Bolowich. "Then maybe we can organize games in the season. It cuts down on our travel and everything. It may create that little rivalry and what's wrong with that?"
Nothing, it seems to me, is wrong with that. With a conference schedule that will have the Bluejays making numerous trips to the east coast, why wouldn't you take the chance to save money and time by keeping the team in town for a nonconference match?
Nebraska may be a "football state", but I'd argue Omaha is a "soccer city." If last Friday's crowd of 3,133 for an exhibition was any indication, the city is ready to see the two teams square off on a more regular and official fashion.
"We probably need a couple more games to call it a rivalry and probably get some results, but I think you saw all the people come out," said Mims. "Not only the Creighton fans and the Omaha fans, and the soccer fans, but we had a couple hundred students that came over here across campus and it's a five-minute drive. I think it's great for the students, great for the student-athletes to have that. We haven't had that before. It's just been Creighton."
My solution: play another round of spring/fall exhibitions next year, but when 2015 rolls around, it's time to play for keeps, annually. The winner each year's contest can call itself "Omaha's team," and have something to back it up with.
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