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Bulls handle UCF in intense War on I-4 matchup

Junior Sydny Nasello (above) came up big for the Bulls on Sunday night against UCF, assisting on the Bulls’ first goal before drilling the game-winning penalty in the 75th minute. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The latest edition of the War on I-4 proved to be one of the toughest and most intense tests of the season for the USF women’s soccer team. In a chippy affair, the No. 16 Bulls triumphed over in-state rival UCF 2-1.

The Knights held their own on the road and made sure the Bulls (5-0-1, 4-0 AAC) had to work for the victory. Coach Denise-Schilte Brown employed a new defensive shape for this matchup, and her team was forced to quickly adapt to the new style of play.

“I was so proud of the group because once you get into a rhythm of playing one way, it’s not easy to change,” Schilte-Brown said.

UCF nearly took advantage of the early confusion, working a 1-2 within the penalty area in the 17th minute and setting up its striker from about 5 yards out.

Junior goalkeeper Sydney Martinez hasn’t been called into action much this season, but she showed her quality once again with a stunning save from close range.

As the Bulls looked to respond, their opponents remained physical, repeatedly making their presence felt whenever USF tried to create chances.

Junior forward Sydny Nasello was the target of many UCF tackles, hitting the turf four times in the first half alone from defenders’ challenges.

Even the physical play couldn’t keep Nasello quiet though. Just minutes after UCF’s scoring chance, she dribbled past a defender on the left side of the Knights’ penalty box and slipped in a cutback for senior forward Chloe Zamiela, who flashed her shot just wide of the post.

In the 37th minute, Nasello again created for her teammates, lofting a pass over the UCF defense into the path of onrushing senior midfielder Sabrina Wagner, who controlled nicely before putting the Bulls ahead 1-0. It was Nasello’s team-leading third assist of the season.

Outside of the intensity from both teams, another story from Sunday’s match is the end of USF’s perfect defensive record.

Coming into the second period, it looked as if even a new shape wouldn’t deter the Bulls’ defense.

But in the 60th minute of the match and 540 minutes into this season, the opposition finally slotted one into the back of Martinez’s net. Unsurprisingly, it was a result of some robust play from the opponents.

On a free kick from about 35 yards out, a ball was floated into the penalty area. Martinez, as she has done plenty of times this year, rushed out to claim the pass in the air, but collided with a number of bodies and the ball dribbled past her.

UCF’s junior defender Mathilde Kack found herself in the right place at the right time, tapping home easily to even the score at one.

The equalizer sprung the Knights into action, pressing USF’s defenders anytime they were on the ball and looking to ride the momentum to another goal.

The Bulls were able to match the intensity, however, absorbing all the UCF pressure for the next few minutes.

“I love the maturity of the group to settle down, relax and fight to get the goal back,” Brown said regarding the team’s response to conceding for the first time.

Suddenly, it was the Bulls who needed to respond and not lose their heads. And with the team in need of someone to take control, Nasello stepped up once again.

After 75 minutes on the field and taking more than a handful of shoulders and elbows, Nasello found one more burst of speed. She beat the UCF center back to the ball, weaving around two defenders before being fouled once again in the penalty area, ultimately knocking in the ensuing penalty shot.

With the win, USF stays undefeated, stretches its winning streak to three and remains tied with the Memphis Tigers atop the conference standings.

Next up for the Bulls is a matchup on the road against SMU and forward Jewel Boland, the conference leader in goals per game.

USF will kick off against the Mustangs on March 25 at 7 p.m. on the road in Dallas at Westcott Field.