In the end, it just wasn’t enough.
A 13th consecutive winning season, including victories against eventual Conference USA champion St. Louis, participation in the C-USA tournament and an 11-7 record, which was probably just one win shy of earning an NCAA invitation, were all achieved in George Kiefer’s maiden year as USF men’s soccer coach. But, from the perspective of the players and the coach, disappointment and a sense of what-might-have-been characterized the Bulls’ 2002 campaign.
Assessing his first season in charge, Kiefer pinpointed a mid-season lack of consistency as the difference between a great and mediocre campaign.
“I wouldn’t say it was a failure, but it was disappointing. It was a roller coaster ride — a lot of ups and downs,” he said.
For goalkeeper Troy Perkins, the Bulls, by not emulating last season’s appearance at the NCAAs, clearly underachieved. The junior, however, offered a tempered assessment of his head coach’s first year in charge.
“In terms of what we wanted to accomplish it was definitely a failure. It’s hard to see the success of it,” Perkins said. “But for Coach Kiefer, it certainly wasn’t a disaster as a first year.”
The Bulls’ season began brightly as they rushed out to a 6-1 start, the lone defeat to nationally ranked UNC-Greensboro in the South Florida Soccer Classic. But it was inconsistency in the middle of the season that almost cost them their C-USA tournament berth and did cost them a place at the NCAAs. The Bulls notched notable wins against St. Louis and UAB, but followed both performances with defeats against lesser foes Louisville and DePaul. The problem for the coach was, as Kiefer succinctly summed it up, he never knew which Bulls’ team was going to turn up.
Consequently, it wasn’t until the Bulls’ final regular season game that fourth place and qualification for the C-USA tournament was clinched, courtesy of Hunter West’s fifth game winner of the season.
At the C-USA tournament in St. Louis, the Bulls fell in the first round following a cruel 3-2 overtime defeat to Cincinnati, a loss that represented the lowest ebb of the season for Perkins.
“The loss at the end was like a knife in the back,” Perkins said. “Particularly as we later learned we were one win away from going to the NCAAs.”
The Bulls’ season contained one final twist, the unexpected departure of assistant coach Mike Duncan, who concluded his best opportunity for a head coaching position lay elsewhere.
Kiefer said his first season in charge has been a learning process.
“I learned a million things — it was a positive year in that respect,” Kiefer said.
Characteristically, the coach is already chomping at the bit to get back to work.
“I’m extremely hungry to get started as soon as spring begins,” he said.
Renowned for his recruiting abilities, Kiefer has devoted a considerable amount of his energies to scouting. While it is anticipated that Kiefer will be bringing in a number of players to bolster his squad, the coach said he is happy with the core of the team he inherited from former coach John Hackworth.
“He had put together a good team here,” said Kiefer. “I would have preferred to come and worked with them in the spring instead of having watched them for the first time in preseason.”
Seeking more from his players than just skill and technique, Kiefer said he has used his first season in charge to size up which of his players have the right attitude to accompany their ability.
“We’re finding out from a personnel standpoint who’s on board,” said Kiefer. “Who hates losing? Who’s willing to pay a price for us to become one of the better teams in the conference?”
The Bulls will begin next season minus five regular starters lost to graduation. The absence of seniors Jeff Thwaites, Casey Stump, Gabe Salgado, Kevin Cowan, Ben Cowherd and Brian Mullins will test the depth of Kiefer’s squad. Kiefer will look to build his team around a strong spine of Perkins, Jared Vock, Anthony Finazzo and C-USA Freshman of the Year West.
With Kiefer’s reign in its infancy, it is still too early to pass judgement on the former UConn assistant. The litmus test for Kiefer is likely to come in the next two seasons as he supplements his existing roster with his own recruits.
While some players may be concerned about losing their place to new recruits, West said he welcomed the prospect of fighting for his place.
“I’m not worried about that at all. I hope (Kiefer) brings in the players we need here at USF,” said West. “A team gets better when everyone is competing for a position.”
Kiefer’s immediate ambition is to make nights like last season’s victory against St. Louis a regular occurrence.
“It’s nights like that you have to build on, to work on getting the crowds up,” said Kiefer. “That was an exciting night. It’s that type of atmosphere that will help you attract the better players in the country.”
For Perkins, the Kiefer era is likely to usher in a different type of Bulls’ soccer.
“With the type of players he wants to bring in, it’s going to be a hard working, determined team totally different to what this school’s ever seen,” said Perkins. “It might not be the style of play people are used to seeing.”
Chris O’Donnell covers USF men’s soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org