As the 2015 USF men’s soccer team walked off the field for the final time, it was left feeling stunned.
A team that reached as high as No. 11 in the nation and was expected to go far in last year’s NCAA tournament was eliminated in its first match against underdog Boston College.
This year, the Bulls are looking to move past that heartbreaking defeat and move toward the future. Coach George Kiefer said he knows his team had the potential to go farther than it did.
“We haven’t spoken about it … but clearly a few games were left on the table,” Kiefer said.
The players said they should have given themselves a better chance to compete for a NCAA championship last year, but this has become a common theme for USF.
In Kiefer’s tenure at USF, the Bulls have posted excellent regular season records, but have made early exits in the NCAA tournament, only getting as far as the Elite Eight twice.
Kiefer has made the goals for the 2016 Bulls clear, especially in light of USF being picked to finish second in the AAC.
“When I’m recruiting and I come in second, I don’t get that guy,” Kiefer said. “Second place doesn’t get a recruit, second place doesn’t get a job.”
Kiefer said his players are using it as motivation among themselves, even though they haven’t discussed the second place prediction.
With only five true freshmen on the roster, USF will have to rely on upperclassmen to navigate a tough schedule that includes the third ranked team in the nation, two other top-25 teams and several other teams hovering just outside the top 25.
Despite the intimidating slate of matches ahead, the Bulls are already off to a strong start, defeating No. 21 FIU 1-0 in a preseason exhibition match Aug. 15.
“I feel like we have a bunch of weapons,” Kiefer said. “Once we sharpen it up a bit, there’s a lot of weapons and a lot of options off the bench.”
Once again this season, USF looks as though it has the raw talent and experience to compete with any team, as they return 19 players, including 10 seniors. In the returning group is a veteran in the net and three of the top four scoring leaders from last season.
An oddity this season is having some players who have only been in the program for two years take on leadership roles.
Although they are seniors, 2015 scoring leader Nazeem Bartman and Michael Bajza are only going into their second year with USF after transferring from other institutions. According to them, this new experience has helped them get the younger players more acclimated to the Bulls.
“Coming in, it was kind of hard for me to adapt to the program, the new school, the environment and all that,” Bartman said. “I had the older players that have been here before, they helped me get used to things and molded me into the system.”
Both Bartman and Bajza said helping their teammates the way they were helped last year is something that has come easily.
“Being able to help them around campus, get them acclimated to college and how everything works here is something I’ve really enjoyed,” Bajza said.
Bajza also shed some light as to why he decided to transfer back to his hometown of Tampa from North Carolina State University.
“I wanted to be a part of something that has never been done here and win a national championship,” Bajza said.
The 2016 Bulls look to prove Bajza right and finally live up to the hype when they kick their season off against Michigan on Friday at 7 p.m. in Corbett Stadium.