The USF men’s soccer team will travel to TCU Friday without three of its most influential players, who are suspended for breaking team rules.
The Bulls will make the trip to Texas for their last regular season game minus seniors Jeff Thwaites, Brian Mullins and Kevin Cowan following an undisclosed transgression of team rules on their trip to Chicago last weekend. With the Bulls needing a win to guarantee their place in the Conference USA Tournament, the three face an anxious wait to know if they will ever pull on a Bulls’ shirt again.
When questioned, coach George Kiefer confirmed that the three seniors would not travel with the team, but declined to divulge the nature of their misdemeanors.
Bulls playmaker Jeff Thwaites, who also refused to discuss the details of the incident, said he did not dispute the punishment, but the idea that his career could conclude on such a sour note was difficult to accept.
“It hurts me not to go,” Thwaites said. “I’ll be devastated if I end my college career not playing.”
Faced with the dilemma of excluding three key players for what is a must-win game, Kiefer said he had not fretted over the decision to leave them at home.
“This decision was no decision on my part — they made the decision when they broke team policy,” Kiefer said.
For Kiefer, the long-term integrity of the program must outweigh any short-term concerns.
“I’ve got to live with the Hunter Wests, the Brian Gils (both freshmen), the (sophomore) Jared Vocks for another three to four years. The program is more important than one game,” he said.
Midfielder Ben Cowherd, who also refused to break the omerta-like silence surrounding the incident, said he could appreciate both sides’ perspective.
“I understand Coach Kiefer’s treatment. He’s got to look at things long term – he’s looking at the example being set here for his freshmen,” Cowherd said. “I understand it from the team’s point of view also, as it could be their last game.”
Thwaites said that all three players had continued to train with the team throughout the week and had concentrated on not affecting the other players.
Thwaites said he is optimistic the team will return with the right result.
“I’m confident of my team, that they’ll come back with a win for me. I hope they’ll use this as motivation,” Thwaites said.
For Cowherd, the prospect of concluding his college career in the C-USA Tournament is all the motivation he needs.
“I know in my heart I’m going to go there and fight to win because it could be my last game and to get in the conference tournament,” he said.
Cowherd said there was sympathy among the team for the three seniors.
“It’s terrible they can’t come, and the team is upset about it, but we’re not going to let it affect us,” Cowherd said. “Nothing’s changed. We’re still going to go there and do what we need to do.”
While TCU has struggled this season, it has been the Bulls’ failure against teams below them in the conference standings that has meant they enter their last regular season game with qualification still in the balance. With head-to-head records used to split teams with equal records, failure to win would mean the Bulls relying on other results to go their way.
In a conference that has proven to have few weak teams, Kiefer, who admits that non-qualification would be a disaster, is understandably wary of the team that stands between him and conference qualification despite its 3-13-1 record, (2-6-1 in conference play).
“TCU is a good team. They tied Saint Louis at home,” Kiefer said. “The way the conference is, on any given game one team can knock over another.”
Cowherd is adamant that, even without Thwaites, Mullins and Cowan, the Bulls will be fired up to ensure post-season play.
“As far as this weekend, there’s no chance we’re going to go in there taking this team lightly. We rise to the occasion of must-win games,” Cowherd said.
Chris O’Donnell covers USF men’s soccer and can be reached at email@example.com