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Missed chances doom USF women’s soccer team in first-round exit

USF defender Diana Saenz reacts as Florida Gulf Coast celebrates its first NCAA Tournament victory. ORACLE PHOTO/ROBERTO ROLDAN

The stage was set for the NCAA Tournament’s opening round on Saturday at Corbett Stadium.

The USF women’s soccer team, which entered undefeated at home, was pitted against Florida Gulf Coast, whose road woes were apparent.

All signs pointed toward the Bulls in front of a packed crowd laced with green, gold and a dash of blue for the biggest game of each teams’ season.

But what began as joy and anticipation soon turned to heartbreak as the Bulls fell 2-1 — their second consecutive opening-round exit at home.

“I’ll always remember the journey with these girls,” coach Denise Schilte-Brown said following the game.  “Each year and team is unique, and it was an unforgettable season.”

USF (15-4-3) broke the stalemate early, scoring off an FGCU (14-5-2) own goal in the second minute. In an attempt to clear the ball following a Cristina Ferral corner kick, an FGCU defender sent the ball into her own net.

FGCU quickly responded with two goals — both off penalty kicks ¬— to take a 2-1 lead in the first half.

The first, from FGCU’s Shea Rhoney, came after a tackle from USF senior defender Alexis Rossi inside the box. The second came in the 36th minute off the foot of FGCU midfielder Paulina Speckmaier.

“I don’t make excuses, but I do feel the refs ruined a good game today,” Schilte-Brown said. “(Rossi) has been having the same tackles the entire season … for (the ref) to give up two PKs like that was a travesty to the game of soccer.”

USF certainly had its fair share of opportunities. Despite outshooting the Eagles 21-11 with a 7-1 corner kick advantage, the Bulls were unable to push across the equalizer.

Most of USF’s offensive opportunities came off the foot of senior Olivia Chance who was consistently putting the ball in position to score.

With fewer than 20 minutes remaining, Chance placed an accurate corner kick in the box, which gave USF two shots at the net, but the Eagle defenders were able to knock the ball out and maintain their lead.

“(Chance) is a really special player,” Schilte-Brown said. “She was just giving it everything she could to win, and of course we’re proud of that.”