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Bulls still alive in NCAA play

Evelyne Viens scored three goals against UF last Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

Talk about being in elite company.

As the college soccer season winds down, very few programs get to continue playing. Just 64 women’s teams make the NCAA Tournament and even fewer (48) make it on the men’s side.

So the fact that both USF men’s and women’s soccer are still playing as both NCAA tournaments get underway is pretty special.

In fact, USF is one of only 11 schools in the country — and the only one in the AAC — to have both its men’s and women’s teams still playing as the women’s tournament reaches its second and third rounds this weekend and the men’s tournament starts Thursday.

For USF men’s soccer (11-6-1, 4-3 AAC), the appearance marks the first since 2016 — and first under third-year coach Bob Butehorn. After a rough first few seasons — USF won a combined 13 games Butehorn’s first two seasons and didn’t qualify for the AAC Tournament in 2017 — this is a nice payoff for some hard times.

“It goes to show that sometimes you believe in something and you try to build a culture right …  and you have a little patience and hard work, hopefully this is always the byproduct,” Butehorn said. “You get the rewards of some times that maybe you had question marks.”

It’s not just Butehorn’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament as leader of the Bulls — incidentally, he was coach at Florida Gulf Coast in 2016 when it knocked USF out of the tournament the last time USF qualified — it’s the first time for almost his entire roster. 

Only two members of the 2016 roster — Stephen Rudderham and Jonathan Rosales — were part of the 2016 team.

“The whole team in general was super excited,” junior forward Adrian Billhardt said of learning about the Bulls’ selection to the tournament. “We all hugged each other. We were super happy and that’s made the team atmosphere even more increased the last couple of days.” 

The Bulls travel to Louisville (8-7-2, 3-4-1 ACC) to face a team they already defeated 2-0 on Sept. 9 at Corbett Stadium. At the time, the Cardinals were ranked No. 5 in the nation. 

Goalkeeper Harrison Devenish-Meares celebrates with fans after USF defeated then-No. 5 Louisville at home in September. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

But that was then and this is now — and the NCAA Tournament.

“Teams go up and down throughout the season,” senior goalkeeper Harrison Devenish-Meares said. “So for me, you can’t take much away from the first time we played. Especially being in the tournament now — the big dance — you’re going to see a different team.

“But what we can take away is we know individuals and we know tendencies and that can definitely help us win. And of course they know us and they’re going to study us too, but I think we definitely have enough quality to win this game and then go on and do something special.”

The Bulls and Cardinals kick off at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday (TV: ACC Network). One person who’s really happy for Butehorn and his team is his counterpart on the women’s side.

“I’m so excited for men’s soccer and just — Bob is such a great person and he’s got such great energy for these boys,” USF women’s soccer coach Denise Schilte-Brown said. “It was a quick turnaround to get this program in the right direction, and I think he’s where he deserves to be, getting into the tournament.

“It’s fun to have the soccers both still competing, isn’t it? You’re both still at practice and still alive, and not a lot of programs in the country can say that both their sides are still alive at this point. And it’s just fun to have us both there.”

Schilte-Brown’s 11th-ranked Bulls are getting set to travel to Tallahassee to face No. 4-seed Washington (12-6-2, 7-4 Pac 12) on Friday at 2 p.m. (TV: ESPN3 | Radio: BullsUnlimited) after coming off a 4-2 romping of Florida in Gainesville last Friday.

Senior striker Evelyne Viens recorded a hat trick in the span of 13 minutes and scored the Bulls’ first seven goals of the postseason, counting the AAC Tournament. Viens, along with her fellow seniors, is having the kind of run that doesn’t happen often.

“There’s a lot of hype, sometimes, about your senior year,” Schilte-Brown said, “and then it comes and you’re just kind of a little disappointed for the kids, because it doesn’t pan out the way you want.

“I think for this group, they’re getting to have their kind of storybook senior year and that’s really fun.”

In order for that storybook season to continue beyond Friday, they’ll have to get past a very good Washington team.

“They don’t have any weak links,” Schilte-Brown said. “They’re just a really solid soccer team. In my opinion, they have a great back four, an organized and well-balanced midfield.”

As far as attack goes, Washington’s leading goal scorer is sophomore forward Summer Yates with eight goals and six assists. Yates’ 22 points are 14 more than the Huskies’ next leading scorer, senior forward Kennedy Smith.

Should the Bulls defeat Washington, they would face the winner of FSU vs. Brown, which takes place immediately following the Bulls vs. Huskies, on Sunday at 1 p.m. While it’s tempting to look ahead — especially given that FSU knocked the Bulls out of the tournament in the second round last season — Schilte-Brown and the Bulls are focused on Friday’s opponent first.

“We have our hands full with Washington and the girls know that,” Schilte-Brown said. “And this program has a real challenge to get to that second round. And I think that’s where the focus needs to be. And I think that’s where it is for the girls.”