By Jon Gerardi
The Daily Item
Messiah junior Jeremy Payne admitted that there wasn't much time for nerves in regards to playing in the NCAA men's soccer Final Four tournament once the wee hours of Wednesday morning rolled around.
He was one of numerous Falcon players that boarded a plane at 3 a.m. Wednesday and while just about everyone else in Grantham was sleeping, the Falcons were about to head 1,600 miles southwest to San Antonio, Texas.
"Individually there are no nerves because I think as a whole, there's a lot of players that picked up the burden. It doesn't fall on one player alone," Payne said of his Messiah teammates. "There are many players on the team. (It's) just having confidence in everyone on the team and I don't really feel like there's any nerves."
Perhaps part of that reason is that Payne -- a Midd-West graduate and former two-time Daily Item Player of the Year -- was here last year when Messiah was crowned national champions.
Payne and the Falcons (20-1-1, 9-0 Commonwealth Conference) start their quest for a repeat title today at 7:30 p.m. CST against Williams College.
"It's unbelievable to come back down here for the second year in a row," Payne said. "I think it just shows how hard each person worked to make it happen as a team."
Payne, a 6-foot-2 midfielder, has been a large part of Messiah's success the past two seasons. He is second on the team in goals scored (15) and points (39) and has started every game the past two years.
Messiah in recent years has become somewhat of a soccer national powerhouse. The Falcons have been to 14 NCAA Final Fours, 11 since 2000. The Falcons haven't lost in their past 15 contests this year.
Coming back to San Antonio for a chance to repeat is something that Payne thinks only will benefit Messiah experience-wise.
"I think it helps because, like I said, when we get to play in Final Fours and extend our season, we get to hang out more and practice more, which I think benefits the team as a whole," Payne said.
"We work really hard at developing team chemistry on this team. It's not something that we just hoped for. We worked really hard at it and were really intentional about our relationships on the team, and I think one of our strengths is that we're friends first, soccer players second," Payne added. "When you have a mindset like that, when you put your friendship first, you're going to have better results on the field as well because you have trusting relationships with those guys you're playing with. You can be confident and not too many times you see someone yelling at someone on the field. (It's) just a level of trust and having those meaningful relationships off the field benefit us very highly."
And while Payne helped work hard at developing team chemistry, he also worked hard at getting a starting spot for Messiah.
In his freshman season, Payne played minutes in 20 games, but only started in two. Coming into his sophomore year, the only thing Payne wanted was to earn a starting position on the Falcons.
"There weren't a lot of things in my mind in terms of awards or accolades, because I didn't have those expectations last year because I was just looking to find a starting spot on the team and that was my focus," Payne said.
That focus and determination earned him a spot in the starting lineup, as he started all 25 games for Messiah last year, and all 24 this season so far.
And while accolades and awards weren't in Payne's mind, that doesn't mean he didn't earn recognition.
Last season, Payne was recognized as the National Player of the Year, was a first team All-American and All-Region by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. He was also named Midfielder of the Year and first team All-American by D3Soccer.com.
In last year's 2012 National Championship, Payne earned yet another award as he was named to the All-Tournament Team and was first team All-Conference in addition to being Player of the Year.
All those awards aside from last year and any he may receive this year are probably secondary in Payne's mind right now, however, as the junior midfielder has his eyes on something much more important: winning a repeat national title for Messiah.