Bulls aim to tame Leopards in season opener

Every year since 1997, the USF men?s soccer team has lost its season opener.

The Bulls will attempt to stop that trend when they play Patriot League regular-season champion Lafayette, 7 p.m. at the USF Soccer Stadium.

Mike Duncan, USF assistant men?s soccer coach, said his players are eager to get the season under way and win the first season opener since a 3-2 victory versus Georgia Southern in 1996.

?I think the boys are really excited,? Duncan said. ?There?s a great intensity about the training and a buzz in the air again, you know: soccer season is back.?

The USF squad has changed significantly since last November?s season-ending loss to Saint Louis. Twelve players who were on the squad that day are not on this year?s team, replaced by a mixture of freshmen, transfers and players returning from injury.

The new-look Bulls team plays a Lafayette team which posted an 8-10-1 record in 2000. After wrapping up the regular-season league crown, the Leopards lost on penalty kicks in the final of the Patriot League Tournament.

Lafayette is anchored by senior defenders and co-captains Keith Evans and Mike Saioni, who played in all 19 matches and scored three goals apiece last year.

?Their two central defenders are good. They?re solid players,? Duncan said. ?I think we might be able to go at ?em with a little speed with (forward) Jason Cudjoe.?

USF will counter with a central defending tandem of junior Casey Stump and freshman Jared Vock.

?Jared?s a special player. I think he?s going to add a lot to our team,? Duncan said. ?He really complements Casey Stump in the back.

?I think they?re going to feed off each other and hopefully we can find that elusive shutout that we didn?t get last year.?

On Sunday, the Bulls take their home field again to face 1996 national runner-up Florida International at 7 p.m. The Golden Panthers are the defending champions of the Atlantic Soccer Conference after an 11-7-1 record in 2000.

In the off-season, FIU added three freshmen ? Landy Mattison, Carron Williams and Allen Handy ? who have played with their junior national teams.

FIU coach Karl Kremser won Division II national titles in 1982 and 1984, and lost the Division I title game in 1996.

However, the Golden Panthers have missed out on the postseason for the last three seasons.

?FIU is traditionally a top-20 team and it?s a cross-town rival ? they?re in Miami and we?re here,? said Duncan. ?And it?s a recruiting battle for us.?

USF midfielder Jeff Thwaites said this year?s team will be a more unified group than previous squads.

?Because in the past, we?ve had stars ? all the talent in the world but no cooperation amongst the team,? Thwaites said.

?So this year, we?ve made the emphasis on teamwork and what we can do for the team without killing creativity and individuality.?

Thwaites said he is almost fully recovered from an off-season hernia operation and aims to play all 90 minutes against FIU.

USF will be led by co-captains Joe Valencia and Matt Cavenaugh, though Thwaites pointed out that responsibilities will be shared by all team members.

?It?s (captaincy) something we don?t emphasize too much,? Thwaites said. ?We want all 11 starters, or all 24 players on the team, to be captains in their own way.?

Contact Khari Williams at oraclekhari@yahoo.com