Bulls are just like Bankester

The progress of the USF women’s soccer team has closely resembled that of its goalkeeper Breck Bankester. As a freshman, Bankester was part of a three-woman rotation in the net, struggling to get playing time. Likewise, the Bulls, without any seniors on the team, struggled to find their identity as they finished 4-13-2 . Last season, Bankester cemented herself as the team’s starting goalie as the Bulls rebounded from a 0-4-1 start in Conference USA with a 4-0-1 finish in the league to earn a berth in the postseason tournament.

This year, Bankester opens the season as USF’s only first-team all-conference selection. Can her team follow her lead?

“We try to live by (coach Logan) Fleck’s words, ‘Expect the worst, hope for the best,'” Bankester said.

That’s the attitude one would expect from a team that’s already been dealt a few blows. Bankester suffered a high ankle sprain in practice, causing her to miss an exhibition Thursday and putting her status in doubt for Monday’s opener vs. University of Central Florida. If Bankester can’t play, senior Tabitha Butler, who spent her first three years at USF on the track and field team, will fill in.

Two of Bankester’s teammates haven’t been as lucky. Sophomore Michelle Buskey, who played in 17 games a year ago, suffered a knee injury that will force her to miss the season. Sophomore midfielder Berna Breirem has a lower back injury that needs to be re-evaluated in another week.

This for a team that already had to replace its top three scorers from 2002’s 8-8-2 squad.

The most notable is Tia Opliger, who paced the team with eight goals. Opliger scored the lone goal in the Bulls’ 1-1 tie with No. 15 Marquette, which began the team’s turnaround. USF went 5-1-1 after that game, including taking the final two games of the regular season in double overtime to advance to the C-USA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

“Nobody really stepped up, but then the last half of the season, we had Tia,” forward Rachel Thjomoe said. “She really stepped it up and brought the team together.”

“We fought for her and the other seniors,” Bankester said.

This season, that burden falls to Thjomoe who is not only the team’s leading returning scorer (two goals and four assists), but also the only senior other than Butler. If Breirem can return, she has a deft touch in dead-ball situations and the ability to create with the ball at her feet. She trailed only Opliger last year with 13 shots on goal.

The Bulls also got contributions from Rachel Ross and Katie Reed as freshman last season. Reed, who tallied a goal and two assists in 2002, appeared on the All C-USA Freshman team. The team has five players who appeared in every game and another who missed just one.

“We were not picked in the top eight again, and we were not picked to do a lot of things,” Fleck said. “I think this is a teaching year for me to make sure we get them to learn a lot of good soccer. But that’s what I love about sports. You never know. The year you think everything is going to fall into place, you don’t know.”