A large framed picture hangs on a wall of USF men’s soccer coach John Hackworth’s office. The photo shows the 1998 USF team gathered in celebration on the field at the USF Soccer Stadium.
To the right of the picture, Hackworth stands holding his oldest son, Morgan. In the middle of the group is a freshman forward named Jason Cudjoe. The occasion: the 1998 Conference USA Tournament championship, won by the Bulls 4-2 vs. Memphis.
“That season was one of the most miserable, hardest years of my life in one regard, and then it turned out to be fantastic,” Hackworth said. “After seven games, I didn’t have a win. I was a rookie coach with a pretty talented team and zero wins and looking like it might never happen. We clawed and scratched our way into championship contention.”
In the years since then, Hackworth has added 34 more wins and one more son, Cudjoe has added 19 goals, but USF has not added any postseason success. Their next chance begins tonight at 8 when the Bulls take on Marquette in the first round of the C-USA Men’s Soccer Tournament at the USF Soccer Stadium.
“I have a huge passion and desire to win,” Hackworth said. “All year long, for me, the goal was to win the conference championship tournament. We have that opportunity in front of us. We have the ability to do it.”
USF is the third seed in the tournament and will be taking on sixth seed Marquette for the second time in just more than a week. USF defeated the Golden Eagles 1-0 last week Wednesday via a late penalty kick. If the Bulls (14-5, 7-3 in C-USA) get past Marquette (10-7-1, 5-5 in C-USA), they will face No. 2 seed UAB in the semifinals Friday night at 8.
The tournament kicks off today at 5:30 p.m. when No. 4 seed Charlotte faces fifth seed Cincinnati. The winner plays regular season champion Saint Louis Friday at 5:30 p.m.
Apart from 1998, the Bulls also hosted the tournament in 1997 and 1996, losing to Saint Louis in the final in ’97 and defeating Marquette for the championship in ’98.
Hackworth welcomes the opportunity to host the tournament again.
“Traveling, especially these days, takes a lot of energy,” Hackworth said. “It’s long, you’re in the airport for a long time. And for me, the hardest thing is I have to leave my family. It’s just difficult, so playing at home is great.
“I get to sleep in my own bed, I get to play with my kids in the morning and hopefully get to kiss them on the head when they’re sleeping at night. That alone is fantastic for me. The players should feel the same way, plus they’re going to have their hometown support.”
Of the players on the 1998 team, only Cudjoe and defender Joe Valencia remain on the roster today, and Valencia must sit out tonight’s match because of his fifth yellow card of the season picked up vs. Charlotte on Sunday.
Cudjoe led the Bulls in goals this season with 10, and he tied with junior midfielder Jeff Thwaites (nine goals, three assists) for most points (21). Both Cudjoe and Thwaites were selected to the All-Conference USA first team.
Thwaites scored the 86th- minute winner from the penalty spot last week vs. the Golden Eagles, an ending which Marquette coach Steve Adlard remembers less than fondly.
“There’s a sense of bitterness to have the match swept out from under you like it was,” Adlard said. “I think the boys will be very focused because of that (match Wednesday). I think they are very frustrated inside to have somebody else make the decision …”
The Golden Eagles welcome back midfielder Derek Gutierrez (three goals, six assists) who missed Wednesday’s match with an injury. Captain Sean Reti (six goals, four assists) was named to the All-Conference first team for the third consecutive year.
“It’s a championship, so things will change,” said Hackworth. “There are some things that we’re going to refine, and we’re going to have to do a couple things to factor in Gutierrez playing because he’s a big target up front that they didn’t have last time.”
- Khari Williams covers men’s soccer and can be reached at email@example.com
n Correspondent Chris Lemke contributed to this report