This season, coach Logan Fleck saw his team transform from a leaderless unit with a struggling offense to a squad studded with leaders that found ways to win games. The Bulls’ success culminated in a chance to win the regular season Conference USA title in the Bulls last game of the season.
The Bulls failed to clinch the title, but the success of a team with only one senior on the roster bodes well for future campaigns when the team will benefit from the experience and confidence gained by the 11 freshmen and eight sophomores on the squad.
A large part of the Bulls’ success is due to co-C-USA Player of the Year Breck Bankester’s performances between the pipes. While the Bulls struggled to find a team identity, they were able to stay in contention for the C-USA title in large part because of their goalkeeper’s play. In the regular season finale against UAB, despite the loss, USF played its best match. It was able to connect tight passes and create many scoring chances, skills the Bulls had struggled to show all season.
“The opposing coach said that was the best anyone had moved the ball against them all season long,” Fleck said. “(We had) a bunch of kids that weren’t given a chance to even go to the conference playoffs, and there they were working the ball out of the backfield against the regular-season champs.”
And for a team that was picked to finish 10th in C-USA, just playing for the conference title was big.
“I think it was a great accolade for the young team,” Fleck said. “I think it was pretty huge.”
After the Bulls started a dismal 1-3, they got things going at just the right time for conference play, gaining three wins and a tie in their first four C-USA matches. The Bulls tied East Carolina 1-1, and then went on to beat defending C-USA Champion Charlotte 3-1, Louisville 2-1 and Cincinnati 2-0.
After a perfect start, USF slipped on the road, dropping matches to Tulane 2-1 and Southern Miss 1-0. The Bulls rebounded, winning their next three conference matches to set up the showdown with UAB for the regular season C-USA title.
After USF lost its three leading scorers from the 2002 season, someone needed to step up and provide leadership. Sophomore Katie Reed and juniors Stacci Sastre and Tara Escribano all had key roles on last year’s squad and emerged as captains of this year’s team. As the season went on, Bankester could see the team playing with more intensity because of these leaders.
“It stopped becoming just a game.” Bankester said. “(The games became about) emotions and a lot of people were sharing the emotions after the game.”
When Sastre almost broke down after a loss and when, after one game, Reed actually did cry, the younger players started to look to these women as leaders.
“It’s when you see the emotions of your older players and your captains that the younger players realize that they need to play for more than just to win,” Bankester said.
Reed was recognized as a leader when she was selected first team all C-USA as a midfielder. Sastre was third team all-conference on defense.
Anticipating more next season
Much will change between this year and the next, but the Bulls’ roster will change little.
The team will get back every player from this year’s squad except the team’s lone senior, Rachel Thjomoe.
“Next year, I’m expecting us to take (the regular) season,” Bankester said. “I’m expecting us to take the conference tournament. I have big expectations because I know we can do it.”
Guided by Reed, Sastre and Escribano, the 2004 team will look to improve on its fourth-place finish and first-round tourney loss. Bankester will look to equal her achievements this season and remain C-USA’s top goalkeeper.
“We are looking at adding some new recruits that are pretty exciting. We are looking at building team chemistry, and I think we’ve got some very good leadership right now,” Fleck said. “I’m confident that (next year’s seniors) understand that this is their last shot at the ‘merry-go-round,’ and I really want them go give it everything they’ve got, myself included, so that they go away with a (C-USA Championship Tournament) ring.”