As They Prepare for Final Four, Hawks Take Time to Give Back with NCAA

Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Players Give Back for NCAA as They Prepare for Final Four Appearance

It wasn’t game day. It wasn’t even practice. But Rockhurst University senior soccer midfielder Salim Gumati was sweating.

Gumati had just got done running drills with students from Longfellow Elementary School, located in the Kansas City neighborhood that is its namesake.

On Wednesday, the Hawks took part in an NCAA community engagement event ahead of their Final Four appearance Thursday in Swope Park. They played games — some improvised — in the school’s gymnasium with the students before signing some autographs and heading up to the classrooms to talk to them about everything from school to what their Thanksgiving was like to, of course, what sports they play and watch.

Gumati, now in his fourth year playing for the Hawks under head coach Tony Tocco, said he had been looking forward to the opportunity.

“We’re not just athletes, we’re student-athletes,” he said. “And part of that is always learning, helping out and striving to become a better person overall.”

Hayden Sparrow, another senior who plays wing back, said the community engagement project is also a chance to give back to the community of which he and his teammates are a part right before they play in the

At 5 p.m. Thursday, the Hawks will once again be the home team at Swope Park Soccer Village in Kansas City as they take on Lynn University of Miami, Florida, in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II tournament, their fourth Final Four appearance in five years. Last year, the Hawks dropped a heartbreaking semifinal match to the University of Charleston. But Jake Peters, a senior midfielder, said he thinks that experience has given the team something extra.

“We’re definitely more determined,” he said. “There’s a lot of senior leadership, too, which a lot of teams might not have.”

All the time in between winning the Super Region 2 championship game in West Virginia on Nov. 18, Sparrow said, helped in building that determination as they run drills and watch film to prepare for Lynn.

“Everyone was really excited the first day after getting back” from West Virginia, he said. “But we’ve all gotten a lot more focused during practice since then.”

The excitement and nerves will no doubt ramp back up before Thursday’s game. And in that way, junior forward Umoh Utoh said the community engagement event was a great way to both give back to the city they live and reset their own perspective.

“It reminds us to just have fun,” he said. “When you’re preparing, everything is strict and so serious, but you come out here and be with the kids and it’s so fun.”

As for the match Thursday, they’ll need almost every tool at their disposal — Peters said at this point in the tournament, few teams are familiar and every team is dangerous. Sparrow borrows a phrase from Tocco that the team has internalized — “fear no one, respect everyone.” And there’s no doubt, Peters said, that those words — and the man who said them — are also driving this team.

“Everybody’s really bought in to what we’re doing and everybody’s trying to win something big for Tocco, too,” he said.

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