Opliger refuses to let dream go

Emotional leader, unselfish player, hard worker.

Ask any USF women’s soccer player about Tia Opliger, and they’ll tell you the same thing. Opliger embodied hard work and dedication anytime she stepped onto the soccer field.

“We miss her intensity and leadership on the field,” junior defender Tara Escribano said. “She brought everyone together and set the standards here to play as a team and to always go hard and to give your best at practice.”

“(She) and I were always the one that went at it,” Escribano said. “If it wasn’t verbally, it was physically. We both gave 110 percent. Plus, when she did it, I think everyone else on the team did it, too.”

Now graduated from USF with a degree in criminology, Opliger hopes to bring her intensity and fierce attitude to the professional level.

Opliger was one of 14 players nationwide invited to the San Jose CyberRays of the Women’s United Soccer Association’s exclusive weekend tryout Saturday and Sunday, before the start of the 2003 season. The group was made up of players who have completed their college eligibility in 2002 or earlier, working for a chance to be invited to the CyberRays’ preseason camp, which begins March 1.

“There was 14 of us total, and (San Jose coach Ian Sawyers) basically told us all before we tried out that we were here to do some things and that if you don’t make it, it’s not because you’re not good enough, it’s because of the positions,” Opliger said.

Despite her showing, Opliger didn’t make the cut, as the CyberRays picked two defensive players along with a goalkeeper.

“It was a great experience to meet new people and play against people who were as good, if not better, than I was.” Opliger said.

“It just didn’t work out. He was looking for defensive players. There probably were only four offensive players there. There were several players there such as Sissi, (USA National team members) Brandi Chastain and Tisha Venturini that were all ahead of us for offensive positions, and everyone knows that those three compared to one of us, we don’t have a good shot.”

Having failed to get a spot on a WUSA team, going overseas to play still remains an option for Opliger.

“(USF) Coach (Logan) Fleck and I previously talked about it, and I’m just going to weigh my options and think of what I want to do,” Opliger said. “Everyone knows I love soccer and if it came down to that, then yeah, I probably would.”

Opliger, a four-time all-conference selection, is USF’s all-time leader in games played with 71, while also finishing third all-time on the career list with 25 goals and 17 assists for 67 points. She was named Conference USA’s Freshman of the Year in 1998 and Soccer Buzz third-team Freshman All-American. In her senior year, she made the Soccer Buzz All-Southeast Region third-team.

Her journey to the professional level has had its ups and downs. A highly touted recruit out of East Bay High School in Riverview, Opliger helped lead the Bulls to a 15-1-3 mark in 1998, the best record in school history. After all-conference sophomore and junior years, Opliger broke her right foot before the 2001 season. Taking a medical redshirt instead of playing, the Bulls suffered in her absence, going 4-13-2. Returning for her senior year, Opliger led the Bulls to an 8-7-2 record and the team’s first postseason appearance since 1999. Opliger, according to Fleck, represented everything that was good about USF soccer.

“When a coach has the ability to, instead of talking about what they would like to see, and just simply say, ‘There in that player is a great example of what you’d like to see,’ I think that makes all the difference in the world to the team,” Fleck said. “The coach has to have some players to point to as examples.

“I’m not sure if sports really builds character, but I think it very much reveals character,” Fleck said. “It showed how strong a character Tia had.”

Despite Opliger’s accomplishments at USF, Fleck knows the chances of breaking through to the professional level are tough.

“It’s so hard to break into the professional ranks because it really isn’t the matter of whether you’re a good player. There are so many other factors that could be considered. You have to consider players already signed through contracts in her position or if she’s going to be able to switch to another position.”

Even though Opliger didn’t make the CyberRays’ roster, Fleck firmly believes Opliger will find her niche with a professional team in the future.

“I think she would be an asset to any program at the professional level because Tia conducts herself like a professional,” Fleck said. “She gives her heart and soul. She knows how to travel well, and she definitely knows how to keep a good attitude. I think those things are going to be very much an asset for her in the next level, be it in the United States, or playing abroad.

In preparation for trying to make it in the professional soccer leagues, Opliger has been training with the USF soccer team and working out on her own.

“What I do more is guide Tia,” Fleck said. “Tia is at the point where I wouldn’t have to tell her to do this, this and this. She has to be given all the credit in the world because she would go out and do it. What we’ll also discuss is a training regimen for her, and then she’ll make adjustments and such.

“She’s at the point where she treats the game as something where she knows she has to go out and do the hard work to get the good things.”

Helping Opliger throughout post-college life has been rewarding for Fleck. He considers Opliger one of his top players ever.

“Tia is in my top three, that’s for sure. Tia represented everything that you’re supposed to be in athletics,” Fleck said. “She went through tough times and stuck it out. She went through good times and gave credit to everyone else.

“She really has the kind of personality I would really like to see embody a whole team.”

Contact Thomas Carrigan at oraclethomas@yahoo.com