For the USF women’s soccer team, the season could not have ended any earlier. Bowing to conference foe UAB 3-1 in their last match left the Bulls on a nine-match losing streak heading down a road with no stop signs.
The streak left the Bulls with a 4-13-2 record overall and a 1-8-1 conference record, including seven straight losses.
Their last victory came against in-state rival Jacksonville with a 3-1 victory on Oct. 5. They were 0 for October in Conference USA, with the last victory coming Sept. 28 at home against Louisville, 1-0.
“The girls definitely need to take a long, hard look at their commitment over the off-season,” said coach Logan Fleck, who experienced his worst season record-wise since going 6-11-1 in 1996.
Entering the season, Fleck expressed three enemies for the team: “One, we have to travel the most distance in our conference. Two, we are fighting ourselves. With 18-19 year olds we are not very deep and will lack consistency. Three, gaining confidence at this level (Division I).”
All three enemies came down hard on the Bulls, perhaps none more prevalent than the lack of depth and consistency.
“I think Tia (Opliger) is a major impact player, and without her we really didn’t have any identity in the midfield,” said junior Amy Wallsmith, who was forced to play all over the field with different combinations for most of the season.
“The lack of experience definitely had the most to do with our struggles. It is hard to establish consistency when you have different combinations and nothing to fall back on.”
Opliger, a senior, learned two days before the season started that her injury was serious enough to the point where it was best to have her medically red-shirted for this year. She had accumulated 17 goals and 16 assists for her career, and had been a major target in the midfield for the Bulls.
With the absence of Opliger, the Bulls looked to other combinations to try and make up for her play-making abilities.
Two bright spots for the future came to Tampa from Norway in the form of forwards Stine Hagh and Rachel Thjomoe. Both tied for the team lead in goals with five, while Thjomoe led the team in assists with six, including three in a victory against The Citadel 7-1 Sept. 7 at the Nike Legends Tourney in Jacksonville.
After tying High Point at 1 Sept. 9, the Bulls were 2-1-1 and looking forward to C-USA play.
The events of Sept. 11 forced the Bulls to postpone two games and not resume play until Sept. 21, when they had to travel to Chicago for a match with DePaul, which they ended up tying at 2.The Bulls then traveled to Cincinnati for a match two days later, where they took a 4-0 beating from the Bearcats, who eventually became C-USA champs.
After coming home and enjoying a four-day rest, the Bulls notched their only conference victory of the season against Louisville, but then fell to Charlotte 3-0 two days later.
Playing the 12th-ranked Florida State Seminoles on Oct. 2 gave the Bulls a shot to prove how much they had grown up to that point in the season. After a hard-fought 1-0 loss, the Bulls felt they had shown their potential.
“That was definitely the most memorable match of the season,” said Wallsmith. “We showed a lot of potential in playing such a talented squad,”
Goalie Valerie Wetzel showed her shot-stopping abilities, coming up with 15 saves in the loss, but the important aspect was the team’s growing confidence and comfort in playing with one another.
“At this point, we feel we are ready to take on anyone,” said Thjomoe after the match.
Three days later, the Bulls took it to Jacksonville and beat the Dolphins 3-1 in what would prove to be their final taste of victory for the season.
Despite Wetzel’s performance against FSU, she was unable to grab the starting job away from freshman Breck Bankester, who won the job outright by the end of the season after battling for starts with Wetzel and Alicia Bostain.
“The goalie position is definitely the backbone of the defense and it felt good to know the battle had been settled by the end of the season,” Wallsmith said.
Defenders Jamie Anderson and Tara Escribano also seemed to have found a home, as did freshmen midfielders Christine Koester and Laura Tucker.
“There are some girls who won’t be with us next year due to lack of interest or commitment (there are no seniors on the team),” said Fleck. “But the ones who will return with Tia are going to be the ones who know from the growing pains how you have to constantly put your heart into it.”
“By just talking to some of these youngsters (Bankester, Thjomoe, Hagh, Koester, Escribano and Tucker were all in their first seasons) you can tell they now know you have to be focused for a full 90 minutes, not just 30 or 40,” Fleck said.
- Chris Lemke covers women’s soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org