The operation scar has still to fade, but the 2003 version of Hunter West is otherwise the same.
On the operating table as recently as May, West defied doctors’ best-case predictions of a midseason return to record a hat trick in the Bulls’ 4-3 double overtime victory over Florida Atlantic Friday. The Bulls got a second taste of overtime Sunday being held 1-1 by Jacksonville.
West, who underwent surgery to remove a piece of calcified bone from his pelvis May 6 and, by his own admission, struggling for match fitness, opened his 2003 scoring with two Drew Helm assisted headers and a game winner in the second overtime period. That he was on the pitch was a surprise even to him.
“I really didn’t think I’d be starting this early in the season,” West said. “I was told to take my time by the doctors and be back for midseason. I’m really happy as far as where I am now.”
The importance of the 2002 Conference USA Freshman of the Year to the Bulls is reflected by coach George Kiefer’s willingness to start a player that he knows will not complete the game.
“He’s a guy that wants to rip your heart out to win a game,” said Kiefer. “When I have to take him off, it’s more to protect his leg. He’s been very mature handling it, and him and I have had a lot of meetings stressing that we want to be patient.”
With the Bulls first C-USA match looming on Sept. 12, West is working hard to regain full competitiveness.
“Right now I’m doing a lot of rehabilitation with my trainer,” West said. “Hopefully when the games start counting, especially the conference games, I’ll be back to match fit.”
For the fans in the USF soccer stadium, it was an unfamiliar looking Bulls that kicked off the 2003 season. With only West, Brandon Streicher, reveling in a new anchor midfield role, and Jared Vock with previous Bulls’ experience, Kiefer unveiled eight of his 10th ranked recruiting class. Appropriately, it was one of the newcomers, Helm, who notched the game’s first goal.
Leading 2-0 and then 3-1 at the interval, the Bulls conceded two strikes in quick succession to the Owls, forcing the game into overtime. Kiefer said he is aware that his inexperienced side may blow hot and cold.
“It’s a young team. We gave up two restart goals within two and half minutes and now they’re back in the game,” Kiefer said. “Some of the older guys, some of the leaders got the game back and we pulled out a win.”
The Bulls followed victory over Florida Atlantic with a 1-1 tie Sunday against a Jacksonville side determined to defend.
Jacksonville took the lead against the run of play after new Bulls’ keeper Peter Lechak failed to get his body behind Brett Surrency’s speculative 30-yard shot.
“I told him he’s basically had the worst thing that could happen to him this weekend happen and he needs to lift his head up and keep going,” Kiefer said.
The Bulls tied the game when Helm held off his marker and powered a right-foot shot past Dolphins keeper, Greg Williams.
Reflecting on the first two games of the season, Kiefer gave his new recruits a mixed report card.
“Some are settling great, some are letting me down, some are doing OK,” Kiefer said. It’s so early in the year. We’ve got some more depth this year so if a guy is not doing well we can bring in a different guy.”
Dolphins coach Bob Moullin said the glut of new Bulls players made preparation for the game difficult, but declared himself content with the result.
“The last three years we’ve played them, I think each year we’ve lost in overtime. So I suppose I am satisfied with a tie,” Moullin said. “(Kiefer’s) obviously brought some good recruits in. I’ve always respected this program. That’s why I give our lads all the credit.”