Bulls’ season turns on a dime

Oh, how things can change fast.

On Sept. 29, the USF women’s soccer team got pounded 4-0 by Saint Louis to fall to 3-6. The team was 0-3 in the conference, and with matchups against nationally ranked Marquette and conference foes Tulane and Houston on the schedule, things were starting to get ugly for the Bulls.

However, since the 4-0 loss, the Bulls have reeled off a 5-1-2 record, including an emotional 1-1 double overtime tie with Marquette. The team limited preseason conference favorite Kate Gordon to just one shot, earning the tie. It then came back the next week to defeat Memphis 2-0 for its first win in three weeks. According to USF coach Logan Fleck, that win changed the tide for the season.

“The game against Memphis, Tia Opliger played her soul out,” Fleck said. “Tia headed a ball, then followed up her shot with a goal. We played a very good, gritty game. The team started to believe in themselves, and they really played for each other.”

After starting off conference play 0-4-1, the Bulls clawed back with four wins and a tie to earn their way into the conference tournament. After being picked to finish No. 11 out of 14 teams, the Bulls now sit on the No. 6 seed. With an off week, the team will start preparing this week for the postseason.

“Friday, we’ll have a simulation game, a ‘green-gold’ game open to the public,” Fleck said. “We’re going to take off Saturday, then fly out Tuesday (to Charlotte, N.C.).”

Fleck also credits seniors Aleia Long and Opliger for the Bulls’ recent resurgence and jump starting the offense. Long, who was just named Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week, scored her third goal in four games while Opliger, who scored the game-winner in double overtime Friday, has regained her three-time All Conference form.

“Aleia Long has been an impact player for us,” Fleck said. “Tia is a conference first-teamer.”

Also, the recruiting class of 2002 was one of the best groups Fleck had brought in in years.

However, through the first several games, it failed to pay dividends. Some of the younger players were playing tentatively and not up to their abilities. Some of those were a cause of the four-game losing streak the team endured in the middle of the season. But the team soon looked within itself to find the underlying causes.

“We lost focus, and we needed someone to step it up,” freshman Berna Breirem said. “All the seniors did, but Tia and Aleia did their jobs. They showed why they’re the captains, and they made the difference.”

With the way they have been playing, even winning the conference title now seems like a big possibility.

Picked to finish No. 11, the Bulls are now poised to enter November fever. The team entered its two weekend matchups at No. 11 like the predictions said, but now USF is perched at sixth, waiting for its chance at a conference title.

“I want anyone,” Fleck said. “I really believe in this team, and with what has occurred in these past weeks, now the team believes in themselves.”

Thomas Carrigan covers USF women’s soccer and can be reached at oraclethomas@yahoo.com