The night and moment were perfect and oh so clear.
Deadlocked at 0 against Southern Miss on Oct. 25, the USF women’s soccer team had six more minutes before overtime ended. Had the Bulls come out with a tie, their chances at postseason play would have been all but extinguished. They needed to run the table to reach playoff glory for the first time since 1999. They needed someone to step up and fast.
Enter senior Tia Opliger.
In the 104th minute, sophomore Kim Martins lined up for a corner kick. The plan was to strike the ball across and hope Opliger would be there to head it in. Opliger had been double-teamed all night and was thirsting for the game winner. Martins made the kick, and No. 10 went flying through the air. Willing herself above four defenders, she flew through the air and nailed the header into the back of the net. The Bulls’ playoff hopes lived for another day.
“Tia absolutely has been the heart and soul of this team,” coach Logan Fleck said. “She has challenged every player on this team to leave everything on this field. She’s been an example by her leadership, but also an example by what she does. Her actions speak much louder than her words.”
However, playing well has been nothing new to Opliger.As a highly-touted recruit out of East Bay High School in 1998, Opliger had several schools to choose from. Even with a relatively new program, she chose USF. After helping lead the Bulls to a 15-1-3 (9-0-2 in conference) record, she earned the Conference USA Freshman Player of the Year award. Her success continued as she earned first-team All-Conference honors in 1999, 2000 and 2002.
But, before the start of the 2001 season, her life changed in an instant.
During practice, Opliger broke the fifth metatarsal bone in her right foot. Despite Opliger’s desire to play, both she and Fleck decided it was best she redshirt her senior year. Now after leading the team to a 8-7-2 record and a No. 7 seed in the postseason this year, it’s safe to say Opliger is back.
“She had led on and off the field,” Fleck said. “And when it was important, Tia showed what it’s like to be a real impact player.”
Opliger’s main support was her mother.
“My mom is a big inspiration,” Opliger said. “Even when she was pregnant, she was at all my games running up and down the sidelines. When I played multiple sports (in high school), she was at everything.”
Opliger also credits a lot of her success to her coach, “Flecky.”
“Even before college, everyone around the county said what a horrible attitude I had as a high school player,” Opliger said. “Flecky took me in and reshaped my attitude. My whole character has matured, and that’s what you should get out of college, and I definitely think I got that.”
With the role of captain, Opliger had a big task at hand. The team had 19 underclassmen, seven of whom were newcomers.
“I was trying to lead by example this year,” Opliger said. “You can talk and run your mouth all you want and tell people to do anything, but you can’t do anything unless you yourself are doing it. No one is going to listen to somebody that runs their mouth and takes their captaincy to their head.”
With postseason play beginning today, Opliger realizes that the season could end at any given day. Since she has graduated from USF already, she still wants to be able to play soccer in the Women’s United Soccer Association.
“WUSA is my No. 1 option. That’s what I want to do first. I’m going to train with the girls and try out for that,” Opliger said. “But, if that doesn’t happen, I’ll probably go to the police academy (Opliger majored in criminology). Ultimately, I want to go federal or the Drug Enforcement Agency.”
Since he has recruited Opliger, Fleck has seen Opliger grow from an 18-year-old, wide-eyed freshman, to a 22-year-old woman.
“My picture of Tia would be when I saw her walking across the middle of the center circle on her senior night,” Fleck said. “She went right through the middle, and I thought, ‘You know, that is so appropriate, she’s leaving the house she built.’
“She’s achieved a level where as a coach, all you do is point to her and say, ‘That is what it’s about.’ She is what you want to become. She showed this young team everything you can possibly show as far as what it takes to make it. We won’t ever be able to replace her.”
Thomas Carrigan covers women’s soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org