4-time All-American Clark led OC soccer to its greatest heights
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of stories telling the stories of the 2014 inductees into the Oklahoma Christian Athletic Hall of Fame
By Murray Evans
OKLAHOMA CITY (Jan. 23, 2014) – Tom Odhiambo scored 22 goals and helped lead Oklahoma Christian to the NAIA men’s soccer quarterfinals in 2001. The next fall, Matt Clark arrived on campus, and Odhiambo – by then an OC assistant coach – knew he was watching a player who could break his records.
Clarl fulfilled that promise, setting OC’s single-season and career scoring records during a career in which he earned NAIA All-America honors four times. Clark will be one of six people inducted Friday into the OC Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I knew he was a special player, just watching the things he did,” said Odhiambo, who now is in his second stint on OC’s soccer staff. “As soon as I saw him, I knew we had to work together. He had a special ability to score goals.”
Scoring goals was something Clark didn’t do a lot of at Midwest City High School, where he primarily played defender, or for his club soccer team, on which he played in the midfield. Despite playing for a prep team that wasn’t exactly a powerhouse, Clark made The Oklahoman’s prestigious All-City first-team list in 2002 and drew recruiting interest from a handful of NCAA Division I schools.
But Clark, who’s close to his parents, Lee and Peggy, wanted to stay close to home and accepted a scholarship offer from then-OC coach Eric Thornhill, who soon left that job and was replaced by Adam Basic. Odhiambo convinced Basic to led Clark play forward.
“They took a step out in faith to see me as that type of player when no one else had,” Clark said. “Even I had my doubts.”
But Odhiambo worked with Clark during the summer before Clark’s freshman year – sometimes taking the practice field at 6 a.m. – to develop Clark’s offensive and finishing skills. That hard work quickly paid dividends, as Clark had 14 goals and nine assists to earn All-Sooner Athletic Conference first-team honors and receive honorable mention on the NAIA All-America list.
As a sophomore, Clark broke Odhiambo’s single-season record, scoring 23 goals, including a hat trick in a win over then-No. 2-ranked Mobile (Ala.) that helped earn Clark a NAIA national player of the week award in September. A goal in a late-season win over Newman (Kan.) gave Clark the record and he again made the first-team All-SAC and honorable mention All-America lists.
“Tom had always dangled that carrot out there of breaking his (record of) 22,” Clark said. “It never crossed my mind in August that ‘this is going to be the year I break Tom’s record.’ Tom always said, ‘You could do more, you could do better for the team.’ When I got to 17 or 18 goals that season, it started to get real.
“I remember how much fun it became to work with Tom and not only help the team be successful, but just how much everybody else got into the process of helping me get there.”
Clark nearly broke his own record as a junior in 2004, finishing with 22 goals to go with six assists. Along the way, he broke OC’s career scoring record of 52 goals, then held by Trey Truesdell. Clark was named as the SAC player of the year and the SAC offensive player of the year and was named to the first-team All-SAC and All-NAIA Region 6 lists, in addition to receiving All-America honorable mention a third year.
During the summer of 2005, Clark was invited to play for a Premier Development League team in Oregon – providing him with an opportunity to perhaps be seen by pro scouts and to play with standout players from other Christian-based universities.
“We got out there and it stopped being about, ‘Am I better or is he better?’ but a group of random guys found a way to come together,” Clark said. “Never in a million years did I realize how much I would get out of that spiritually and … how much success I could have.”
But as the PDL season would down in late July, Clark broke his foot. Initially, doctors opted not to perform surgery and put Clark in a cast, hoping to allow him to play his senior season at OC. But by September, the bone hadn’t healed and surgery had to be performed, ending his season before it could begin.
Clark already had earned his bachelor’s degree, which meant that if he was to return for a fifth season, he’d have to begin working on a master’s degree – something no other OC student-athlete had ever done. Basic left as OC’s coach that summer and was replaced by David Scott, who worked within the OC athletic department to make sure Clark had the chance to return.
“He was patient and caring enough to try and make it work for me,” Clark said. “That last year was because he wanted to give me a chance. He didn’t have to.”
Scott had ulterior motives, however. He’d attended offseason soccer events and meetings and heard the questions from other college coaches in the area inquire about Clark’s possible return, so he knew that Clark could be an asset. He just didn’t know how much of an asset.
Clark essentially picked up where he’d left off in 2004. Despite being limited by an early season toe injury, Clark scored 12 goals, won a second NAIA player-of-the-week honor and teamed with Brady Nikkel and Ivan Coco to give the Eagles an especially potent offense. The Eagles moved into the NAIA poll and finished the regular season ranked No. 12.
The Eagles reached the NAIA tournament for the first time since Odihambo’s senior season in 2001 and knocked off tournament host Embry-Riddle (Fla.) 2-1 before falling 3-2 to Webber International (Fla.) in the quarterfinals, matching OC’s best national finish ever.
“That was a special team, but that goes back to the group of guys we had,” Clark said. “We all knew our role. Dave and Tom set a great environment and culture and we always knew that we could play with anybody and would find a way to win the game.”
The Eagles finished 12-5-2 as Clark, again, was named to the first-team All-SAC list and received honorable mention on the All-America list. Clark finished his career with 71 goals and 162 career points, both still-standing school records.
“He scored big goals in big games,” Scott said. “He played really well in the games we needed him to play well. He was a very confident guy and outgoing. He expected a lot out of himself but he expected a lot of the people around him, too. He worked hard and he expected the other guys to do it, too. He wanted to be successful and it rubbed off on the guys around him.”
Clark also experienced success in the classroom, finishing his master’s degree in business administration in just one academic year – and as a newlywed at that, having married his college sweetheart, the former Maria Maricevic, the summer before his final season.
Since then, Clark has found a professional home in the oilfield services industry. He worked for a company associated with Chesapeake Energy Corp, then briefly for Devon Energy Corp. before taking a job with Redback Energy Services. He and Maria – who used to work in OC’s events office – have two daughters and a third on the way.
Clark coached club soccer for a few years, but gave it up to spend more time with his family. But he says his oldest daughter is showing signs of catching the soccer bug and that wouldn’t bother him a bit.
“That would be a lot of fun,” he said.
“If anybody ever watched me play, one thing I hope they saw was that I loved to win and loved to play but I loved to celebrate more than anything. Sometimes you put so much pressure on yourself and you should enjoy every single goal, every single game. … I worked hard, played hard and was passionate about the game. There was always something to celebrate about it.”