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Bulls bag UConn’s Kiefer

Leaving Connecticut wasn’t an easy choice for George Kiefer.

“It was a very tough decision to leave UConn,” Kiefer said. “Coach (Ray) Reid was almost like a father to me. It’s tough to come to terms with. But eventually, you have to sink or swim on your own.”

Kiefer took a big jump into the deep end Friday when he accepted the post as men’s soccer coach at USF.

“I was shocked when I heard the job was open,” Kiefer said. “I felt it was a real good fit. I think I can attract the same kind of players I got to come to UConn.”

Recruiting is where Kiefer made his mark as an assistant under Reid at UConn. Among the players Kiefer brought to UConn was defender Chris Gbandi, a three-time All-American and four-time All-Big East selection. After a subpar first season at UConn in 1997, the Huskies went on to capture four straight Big East Championships while Kiefer was an assistant. UConn was the NCAA National Champion in 2000.

However, national titles are nothing new to Kiefer. Before arriving at Connecticut, Kiefer was a player and assistant at Southern Connecticut State. As a player at SCSU from 1990-93, he won a pair of Division II national championships. The Owls claimed the conference title all four seasons.

Kiefer continued his on-the-field career with the Connecticut Sea Wolves of the United States Indoor Soccer League in 1994-95. Upon culminating his playing career, Kiefer returned to SCSU as a full-time assistant in 1995 after serving as a graduate assistant the year before. In his two seasons as an assistant, SCSU won a national championship in 1995, and the Owls were a national semifinalist in ’96.

“There’s a lot of experience that comes with these things,” Kiefer said. “I was fortunate that every time I put a ring on my finger, we always looked at the first game up and went from there. That’s how we’re going to do it here. I’m not looking at our entire year, just our first game against Stetson.”

This year should be quite a challenge for Kiefer. USF, like UConn, is coming off a season where it was a triple-overtime goal away from advancing to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls must replace leading scorer Jason Cudjoe and midfielders Joe Valencia and Matt Cavenaugh.

He does have All Conference returnees Jared Vock, Jeff Thwaites and goalkeeper Troy Perkins at his disposal. Those three will have to lead the charge as USF tries to return to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six years and produce its 12th straight winning season.

The biggest hurdle in Conference USA will be defending champion Saint Louis. The Billikens were ranked in the top five in all three national polls and reached the NCAA Tournament for the 40th time in the tourney’s 43-year history. UAB, along with Saint Louis and USF, represented C-USA in the NCAAs.

“I like how competitive C-USA is,” Kiefer said. “It has a good reputation.

“(Having St. Louis as a big favorite) also excites me. When we arrived at UConn, everyone said St. John’s was the best team. It’s a good barometer. St. Louis gives you a good indicator of how good nationally you are.”

With Kiefer’s national reputation for recruiting, he should be able to join all five of USF’s previous soccer coaches, each of whom left the Bulls with a winning record. During his stay at SCSU, Kiefer oversaw six first-team All-Americans, of which two were named NCAA Division II Player of the Year. He continued that trend at UConn where he mentored nine All-Americans and one Hermann Trophy winner. The Huskies had four players go in the 2002 MLS Draft, including Gbandi, who went first overall.

“(His) eye for talent is a strength and is part of the reason that he is such a great recruiter,” Reid said. “His organization, knowledge and enthusiasm are all important qualities that make him the coach that he is.”

The last two months have been very special for Kiefer. In addition to getting the USF job Friday, he got married to his wife, Lauren, May 4.

“It’s been hectic,” Kiefer said. “Lauren’s real excited, and she’s been very supportive.”