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Bulls set on having fun at C-USA

With expectations outside the team low, the Bulls open the Conference USA Tournament against Cincinnati today with the sole mission of enjoying themselves.

Plagued by inconsistency throughout the season, the USF men’s soccer team’s new approach is designed to take the pressure off the players and allow them to play their natural game. After clinching their spot at TCU Saturday, USF coach George Kiefer said the last thing the Bulls needed going into the C-USA tournament was the burden of high expectations.

“We have decided as a group to take a real relaxed approach and just go to St. Louis and have fun and see how far we can push this thing,” said Kiefer. “We’re not going to put any pressure on us. We finished fourth in the conference — no one expects us to win the thing.”

For defender Casey Stump, it is a simple equation.

“We play better if we relax more. If we get nervous, we tend not to play our game,” said Stump.

Although the players might not like to hear it, within Kiefer’s criticism of his team’s consistency, there lurks just a hint of expectancy.

“The team is certainly good enough to go to Saint Louis and win the tournament, but obviously it would need to be a team that shows up for three matches, and we’ve had trouble doing it,” said Kiefer.

Boosted by the C-USA honors bestowed on Hunter West, Jeff Thwaites, Jared Vock and Troy Perkins Wednesday, USF takes part in its seventh C-USA tournament in eight years. The Bulls face fifth seed Cincinnati at the Robert R. Hermann Stadium in St. Louis with a semifinal spot against top seed Marquette awaiting the winner. Host and second seed Saint Louis awaits the winner of today’s other quarterfinal between Louisville and UAB.

Having beaten top seeds Saint Louis and Marquette in regular season play, the Bulls can only look enviously at the bye granted to the top two seeds. Instead, to be successful, the Bulls must survive a punishing schedule comprised of three games in four days and overcome a fully rested Marquette on one day’s rest. The irony is not lost on Kiefer, but the coach insisted that the Bulls’ fourth-place ranking accurately reflected their season performance.

“We didn’t earn that right — I tried to stress to the guys. It’s the games like (losses to) Louisville and Charlotte that come back to bite you,” Kiefer said. “Had we won those games, we’d be in great shape right now.”

And, according to Kiefer, the importance of being seeded cannot be understated.

“The way the conference is structured right now, I think it is critical to have the bye,” he said. “To force a team to play back-to-back against a team that is fully rested doesn’t make much sense to me.”

Having reviewed a tape of the Bulls 2-0 defeat to Cincinnati in October, Kiefer is aware that the Bulls will have to produce more than the two chances they had against the Bearcats the first time. The Bulls’ coach said he attributed part of the Bearcats’ success to the uniqueness of their home field.

“That was on turf on a very narrow field, so I figure it will be a different game, but we’ll have to play much better against them,” he said.

C-USA tournament winners in 1996 and 1998, the Bulls postseasons in recent years have been all too brief.

After tearing out to an 8-0 start in regular-season play, the Bulls disappointingly fell at the first hurdle in 2001, losing 2-1 to Marquette at the USF Soccer Stadium. The previous year, a 3-5 conference record excluded any participation.

In 1999, Stump’s freshman year, the Bulls made the semifinals before being, as Stump termed the 4-0 defeat, “killed” by UAB. Although this will be his final C-USA tournament, Stump said he sees no reason to put extra pressure on himself to go out with a win.

“I’m going to go and try and have fun. It’s no more pressure than a normal tournament,” said Stump. “I’ll just do what I normally do.”

The senior defender, in common with his coach, cites Saint Louis, with its strong home support, often in excess of 4,000 spectators, as the favorite for the tournament. The prospect of playing in front of large crowds, however, holds no fear for the defender.

“Personally, it helps me. I get keyed off the crowd and think I can play much better,” said Stump.

Referring to the Bulls’ opener against Cincinnati, Stump insists the results in the regular season have little bearing once tournament play begins.

“The feeling in a conference tournament is so different. Every team there has the same goal, nothing is easy,” said Stump. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, everything is square again.”