And now the second season begins.
For the first time since 1999, the USF women’s soccer team made the playoffs.
After starting off the season 3-6, the Bulls reeled off a 5-1-2 streak, including wins against conference foes UAB and Houston. USF, the No. 7 seed, begins tournament play today at noon against the second-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats.
However, their match against Cincinnati will not be easy.
The Bearcats roll in with a 13-3-3 record and hold the No. 2 seed in the tournament. The defense, which is ranked No. 6 in the nation with a 0.5 goals against average, has been downright stingy, with goalkeeper Tracy Hale earning a league-high 13 shutouts and 0.52 GAA.
The Bearcats have the distinct honor of being the most successful Conference USA team in league history. In 2001, Cincinnati tied the C-USA single season mark with 20 wins. They captured the conference championship and were the first team to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16 in league history, defeating Oakland and No. 7 Notre Dame, before falling to No. 11 Virginia, 4-0.
The Bearcats have been in the conference tournament every year since its inception in 1995, have compiled a 12-4 record and are three-time conference champs.
They are led by seniors Heather Herweh and Amy Simonson. Herweh has been the backbone of a defensive line that has given up 10 goals all year and was just named first-team All-Conference for the second time. Simonson, a second-team selection, has scored seven goals and one assist, while scoring game- winning goals against No. 12 Florida, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Bowling Green and in overtime at Marquette.
With a three-game winning streak, the Bulls are the hottest team coming into the tournament.
USF started 0-4-1 through its first five conference matches but rebounded with a 4-0-1 mark to secure the No. 7 seed.
Much of these past weeks’ success could be attributed to seniors Aleia Long and Tia Opliger. Long, who was named Offensive Player of the Week last week, has come up clutch with three goals in the past four games.
The left-footed winger has set up one assist for nine points. Opliger, who was named to the first-team All-Conference squad for the second time in her college career Tuesday, has paced the Bulls with eight goals and one assist.
Sophomore goalkeeper Breck Bankester, who was named third-team All-Conference, has been an anchor on the defensive line, giving up 23 goals for four shutouts and a 1.48 GAA.