Veteran Blais leading USF through NCAA tournament

If the USF men’s soccer team is going to punch its ticket to Hoover, Ala., for the NCAA College Cup, the gloves of their veteran goalkeeper will play a big role.

General logic suggests offense will be hard to come by for the No. 7-seeded Bulls in their match against No. 2-seed Creighton. They are facing a Bluejays squad that is best in the nation in both shutout percentage, with 17 of their 22 games (77 percent) ending with their opponent failing to score, and in goals allowed, with five goals allowed on the season, or .22 per game.

To put the statistics in perspective, USF forward Dom Dwyer has 16 goals on his own. He reached the five-goal mark in a 3-3 draw with Dartmouth on Sept. 11, just five games into the season.

With their offense likely being held in check, the Bulls will have to turn to the man between the pipes, graduate student goalkeeper Chris Blais. Blais has been the hero of the postseason for the Bulls, with spectacular performances in both of the Bulls’ NCAA tournament victories.

“Chris Blais made some saves today that he had no business making,” coach George Kiefer said after Blais’ stellar five-save performance in a 2-1 overtime win over UCF on Nov. 20.

Blais followed that showing with an even more impressive performance Sunday, making two key saves in a dramatic penalty shootout, including the game-deciding save against New Mexico’s Blake Smith.

Prior to the season, one of the questions for the Bulls was who would replace former All-American Jeff Attinella. The Bulls found their answer in Blais, who left Michigan after leading the Wolverines to the national semifinals last season to enroll in graduate school.

“After the season last year, I stayed there for the whole spring, and a lot of guys left to go pro,” Blais said. “It just didn’t seem like the best situation for me anymore. I explored a few different things and I really enjoyed coming down here and meeting coach Kiefer and (assistant coach Bryheem) Hancock. They were the two biggest reasons for me coming down here. … Coach Kiefer just had so much passion the first time I met him, and I really wanted to play for him.”

Having experience in the net with the pressure of an NCAA tournament game is vital, especially when the Bulls travel to the hostile confines of Omaha, Neb., to meet the Bluejays.

Creighton is 9-1 all-time in NCAA tournament games at Morrison Stadium, and 13-0 at home this season. USF expects a capacity crowd of 6,000, as it tries to keep its undefeated road record intact.

The Bulls opened their season in another tough road environment, winning 2-0 at Wake Forest, and snapped what was then the nation’s longest home-winning streak with a 2-1 win over West Virginia.

“We have played in some harsh environments,” Kiefer said. “Our first road game of the season at Wake Forest, it was a game where the student body was basically required to attend. Against Creighton, we’re going to be playing in front of (6,000) people, and the guys are looking forward to it.”

Blais is confident his teammates are up to the task of taking down the Bluejays.

“Our team has really thrived (in hostile environments),” he said. “We’ve been really good on the road all year. … We have such a close team, and road games are a really good time to prove who you are.”

Kiefer’s grittiness has shown itself in the team’s play, Blais said.

“He’s got New York in him – he’s a tough guy,” he said. “On the road, we’ve really just battled and never given up. You can look at the Syracuse game. We were 2-0, down in the first half, and a lot of teams would have crumbled.

“The weather was horrible, the field was horrible, but we got in the locker room and we were talking to each other, and we got back out there and we found a way to win. I really do think that comes from the top. Coach Kiefer is very strong-minded and really wills us to win.”

After practicing on the football team’s turf practice field this week to better prepare for the surface they’ll play on at Creighton, the Bulls travel to Omaha today to have extra time to adapt to the conditions.

The Bulls kick off against the Bluejays at 2 p.m. Saturday, with the winner earning a spot in the national semifinals in Hoover, Ala., on Dec. 9.