When the first ball is put in play on Thursday on the Lee Soccer Field at 5 p.m., the NAIA’s No. 2, 3 and 4 squads will be primed and ready to square off. Add the No. 10 club to the four-team event and the tone of Classic speaks for itself.
On top of two days of quality soccer match-ups, it also will be sort of a homecoming for Indiana Wesleyan coach John Bratcher. When Lee began to get serious about men’s soccer in 1989, Bratcher was selected. At one point he coached both the Flames and Lady Flames before resigning and taking the women’s post at Indiana Wesleyan University in 1991.
His 4th-ranked Wildcats (4-0) will face Yelton’s 3rd-ranked Lady Flames (4-1) on Thursday at 7 p.m. At 5 p.m., No. 2 Azusa Pacific (Calif.) will face No. 13 William Carey University (Miss.). After a day off, Indiana Wesleyan will test William Carey on Saturday at 5 p.m. and Lee will be pitted against Azusa Pacific.
“I am excited to be coming back to Cleveland and Lee University this weekend with my squad,” said Bratcher, who has been in college coaching for 30 years. “We look forward to a very competitive classic matchup with the Lady Flames and later William Carey.
”We are also excited about the Kicking Cancer Banquet on Friday night,” he added. “It is great to see the efforts that Matt (Yelton), his wife, Tamara, and the Lee community has put into this event. I pray that it is very successful.”
Bratcher noted, “I have always taken to heart the advice (Lee President) Dr. (Paul) Conn gave me over 20 years ago. He encouraged me to invest in the Cleveland community. My wife, Vanetta, and I look forward to seeing old soccer friends and our Lee University friends at the matches.”
Yelton has been pointing toward this event since he opened the season in mid-August. “We are looking forward to a great weekend of NAIA soccer. These are some of the best teams in the country and I know that any fan of soccer will appreciate the talent that will be on display from these four teams.”
The Lee coach, who has claimed back-to-back NAIA national titles, spoke about his meeting with Bratcher and IWU. “I think this is the first time I have coached against coach Bratcher since my very first year in coaching. He gave me a pretty good beating back then, and I know he will bring a very talented and prepared team to play us on Thursday night.”
Yelton added, “Indiana Wesleyan has been very successful since coach Bratcher went there. He has had a very good run the last few seasons with his teams. This year is probably his best side, and they already have a very impressive win against Lindsey Wilson. They are a very strong and athletic team. We will have to be at our best if we hope to put together a good result.”
But Yelton and his Lady Flames have other business facing them. “We enjoy the match-up against Azusa each year as it is a very good test to see where we stand nationally. Azusa is year in and year out one the NAIA’s best teams. Their players and coaching staff represent some of the best the NAIA has to offer. I think we have played them every year since 2005. The game has always been a very competitive and fun game to be involved in.
“I think there is a mutual amount of respect on each side (Lee and Azusa), and though we have developed a rivalry, it is one where both clubs feel a great deal of respect for each other.
“This stretch of games in September is probably the toughest any team of mine has ever played,” Yelton admitted. “However, with such a young team, I felt it was necessary to find out what we were made of early and give ourselves the opportunity to mature early in the season. I still don’t feel like we have played the best soccer we are capable of, but we are improving each match out.”