It’s hard to see a silver lining after a defeat.
The USF women’s soccer team lost to Cincinnati 3-1 in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament. The season ended and the Bulls are graduating their best player, four-time all-conference selectee Tia Opliger. Still, USF coach Logan Fleck is ecstatic about the way his team fought until the very end.
“I was very proud of my kids,” Fleck said. “Their commitment level was so high, and we had a lot of unsung heroes. Not too shabby for a team picked to not make the postseason.”
Before the start of the season, the Bulls were picked to finish No. 11 out of 14 teams in C-USA. The team carried over a nine-game losing streak from a team that finished 4-13-2 in 2001. The Bulls got off to a rough start, getting drubbed by Miami 5-1. However, they pounded Stetson 4-0 to even their record, and more importantly, snapped a 10-game skid dating back to Oct. 5, 2001.
“Actually, we didn’t really think too much of the losing streak,” senior Aleia Long said. “That was all last year, and we were only focused on playing well for this year.”
The week after, the Bulls pieced together their first winning streak in more than a year, capturing the Jacksonville-Brine/Dennis Viollet Memorial Classic with wins against Florida International and Elon. However, the season appeared to start heading south from there.
The Bulls lost their next four games to DePaul, Florida State, East Carolina and Saint Louis, getting outscored 11-4. At 3-6, the 2002 season was perilously starting to resemble 2001. And with upcoming matches against nationally-ranked Marquette, Memphis and Houston, the prospects of reaching postseason glory began to fade. The team knew that they had to dig deep to turn its season around.
“We started playing for each other,” sophomore Christine Koester said. “We had to step it up and leave it all on the field.”
Competing against both the preseason team (Marquette) and player of the year (Kate Gordon), the Bulls allowed one shot by Gordon and eight shots on goal as they pulled out a 1-1 tie. They won their next game against Florida Atlantic 1-0, but then dropped a 1-0 contest to Tulane. Even with the loss, Fleck thinks this his squad was beginning to turn the corner.
“Anytime a team plays under pressure, that’s what separates the professionals from college,” Fleck said. “You can say we really elevated our game after the Tulane loss.”
On Oct. 14, the Bulls were occupying the 12th slot. And since only the top eight teams make it to the C-USA Tournament, the Bulls had a little more than two weeks to jump four spots if they wanted to make it to the postseason for the first time since 1999.
The Bulls, however, pulled off win after win. They knocked off Memphis, tied Texas Christian and defeated Houston in two weeks. With a 6-7-2 record heading into the final week of the season, the Bulls had to win both games, then hope other teams would fall if they wanted to go on another week. Against Southern Miss, the Bulls pulled off arguably their biggest win of the season, a 1-0 double-overtime thriller. With less than six minutes remaining in the game, Opliger netted the game-winning header. Then with four minutes left against UAB, sophomore Kim Martins scored the game-winning goal on an unassisted play. It was a remarkable turn-around for the Bulls, as they went 5-1-2 in their final month of the season to finish the regular season at 8-7-2, and more importantly, snagged the No. 7 seed for the conference tournament.
“It was really nice (making the postseason),” Long said. “A lot of the underclassmen on the team wanted to play well for us seniors’ final year.”
However, against Cincinnati, the Bulls couldn’t get anything going. The Bulls were held to only three shots the whole game against a vaunted Cincinnati defense that came into the match No. 5 in the country. The Bulls became only the seventh team to score on the Bearcats all year, but it wasn’t enough as they lost 3-1, ending their season.
“It was tough to lose because we knew we were so close,” freshman Berna Breirem said. “We had them in the first half, but by the second half, they started to take over. We could’ve gone far because we had a good team at the end.”
The Bulls, however, were rewarded handsomely for their fine season, placing three players on all-conference teams. Opliger made first-team All-Conference for the second time in her career, while sophomore goalkeeper Breck Bankester garnered third-team honors and freshman Katie Reed made the All-Freshman team.
As for the six graduating seniors, Opliger, Long, Alicia Bostain, Kristin Scotland, Michele Upham and Erin Sharpe, Fleck is sad to see them go.
“You can’t replace experience,” Fleck said. “It’s going to be a unique experience. A lot of these younger players will have to make the commitment if they want to reach the levels of Tia or Aleia.”
Throughout the year, Fleck used different lineups, but there was one common element: his use of freshmen. Fleck plugged in different freshmen each game, giving them much-needed game experience and playing time. He expects them to step it up next year.
“We have to refocus our younger players,” Fleck said. “We have to tell them to do their part now for more playing time next year. They’re going to have to put in the off-season effort if they want to win next year’s tournament.”
Opliger topped the Bulls in points this year, racking up 17 on eight goals and one assist. Martins led in assists with five to go along with three goals for 11 points. For the year, the Bulls scored 28 goals, while the defense allowed 32. Bankester finished the year with an 1.57 goals against average, accumulating 73 saves to go along with four shutouts.
As for next year, the team fully believes it can top this year’s .500 mark and make it to the conference tournament again. They’re not stopping there. Their ultimate goal is winning the conference tournament and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
“Our team is really progressing and developing,” sophomore Rachel Thjomoe said. “Next year, we’re hosting the conference tournament and, we want to be the champions. And if we win, we would go on (to the NCAA’s). It’s not unreasonable, and we’re capable of it.”