Less than two-and-a-half years ago, Jason Spain was preparing his Minot State University women's soccer squad to play the first match in school history.
He was armed with little more than optimism and a nucleus of players he recruited from California - including five from his previous junior-college position at Yuba College.
"When he came here, I don't think we owned a soccer ball," MSU athletic director Rick Hedberg said. "You've gotta have somebody with a vision, and he definitely had that."
Minot State University women’s soccer coach Jason Spain has the Beavers, a third-year program, in the national tournament in their first season in NCAA Division II.
Spain's vision was realized Sunday, when the Beavers beat Winona State in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament final and received an automatic bid into the six-team NCAA Central Region tournament. The fifth-seeded Beavers (15-3-3) play No. 4 seed Southwestern Oklahoma State at 2 p.m. Friday in Warrensburg, Mo.
In Minot State's first year of competition in the NSIC and NCAA Division II, the school's newest sport has also been its most successful.
After being picked 10th in the NSIC preseason coaches' poll, the Beavers finished fourth in the regular season, won the conference tournament and qualified for the 48-team national tournament.
Spain said the rapid ascension was a three-step process: his Yuba College transplants "set the tone" for the program, he found a dynamic goalkeeper in athletic 5-foot-11 senior Marie Torres and, finally, he added an elite goal-scorer in sophomore forward Zoe Fisher, the MVP of the conference tournament and a first-team all-NSIC selection.
Midfielder Lexy Kidd, a senior captain, is Spain's last holdover from Yuba and has played for him since she was 11 years old. Before that, Kidd witnessed Spain's enthusiasm when he coached her older brother at a soccer camp.
"That's how I like to play - just intense, rough games," Kidd said. "That's why I followed him, is because he's a coach that doesn't just go off of technical soccer. It's technical soccer, plus intensity."
Spain convinced enough talent to follow his initial recruiting class to make the Beavers an immediate threat in the NSIC. California is still his go-to location, as 17 of MSU's 33 players hail from the Sunshine State.
"It's not too surprising just getting to know Jason over the last three years," Hedberg said. "His strength is recruiting. He's obviously assembled a good group of young ladies that have bought into the program. I don't think there's too many coaches out there that outwork Jason."
Freshman defender Ryann Rafferty said during her recruiting trip, Spain made her feel "like one of his kids." He also held a dinner at his house for the team's freshmen.
"He made us feel like we had our family there, pretty much," Rafferty said. "It was nice."
Spain has gotten the Beavers to buy into the team concept, despite substituting frequently and sometimes playing 20 players in a match.
"I think people understand that my approach to the game is a lot different than other people's," Spain said. "I don't do a generic starting lineup every game. We build our system to our opponent, and the girls know that they're needed. They're here for a reason."
The Beavers haven't lost since Sept. 30 against Minnesota State-Mankato and have surrendered just five goals in an 11-match unbeaten streak.
"We have a feeling of invincibility right now," Spain said.
Undefeated Southwestern Oklahoma State (19-0-1) likely has the same feeling, but Kidd is confident the Beavers can advance.
MSU knocked off then-No. 3 Mankato in a penalty shootout in the semifinals of the conference tournament, then beat second-seeded Winona State 1-0 in the final.
"After tying Mankato, we know we can beat anybody," Kidd said. "They're the best team in the nation. We were so composed - we defended for 110 minutes. I have so much faith in our defense."