Bulls win regular-season AAC title after defeating No. 14 Memphis

Senior midfielder Katie Kitching (above) scored the first goal of the game in USF’s win over Memphis on Saturday. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

When coach Denise Schilte-Brown took the reins at USF in 2006, she inherited a young women’s soccer program with sporadic success.

On Saturday night, her No. 22 Bulls (7-0-1, 6-0 AAC) guaranteed themselves at least a share of the AAC regular-season trophy, and with a win next week, USF will clinch sole ownership of the hardware.

Celebrations ensued as soon as time ran out on a tense 2-1 victory over No. 14 Memphis (7-2, 5-1 AAC) at Corbett Stadium, a game that served as a de facto regular-season conference title game. The result also secured home-field advantage in the conference tournament for USF, as well as the No. 1 seed.

“I’m really proud of the girls. It was a really tough game,” Schilte-Brown said. “Memphis is a hard team to play against. They were trying to be disruptive and change the flow of our game and our ideas. It was the opposite of what we were trying to do.”

Coming into the clash, both teams were undefeated in conference play. The Tigers were riding considerable momentum after upsetting No. 6 Vanderbilt in an overtime win last weekend. As if home field and a conference title weren’t enough motivation for either team, recent results added fuel to the flames.

“We didn’t want them to feel confident about [Saturday’s game],” Schilte-Brown said. “The last two times they were at our home field we came out quite flat and they got on top of us early … we couldn’t catch them.”

There was no need to play catch up Saturday night. The Bulls were up by two goals within 20 minutes of play. At the center of it all was junior forward Sydny Nasello.

In the ninth minute, Nasello picked the ball up at midfield and found senior midfielder Katie Ktiching in acres of space down the right flank. Kitching finished nicely over the onrushing goalkeeper for the game’s first goal and her second this season.

Just 10 minutes later, Nasello beat a Tiger defender off the dribble in the attacking third of the pitch. With no immediate pressure, she unleashed a rocket into the top left corner of the net from nearly 30 yards out. The strike was her team-leading fourth goal of the season.

Facing a two-goal deficit and having to force the issue, the Tigers pulled a goal back in the 31st minute after a costly USF turnover. After the wake-up call, the Bulls were able to lean on their stout defense for the remainder of the match. When the opposing coach subbed in an extra forward, Schilte-Brown answered with an extra central defender.

“We’ve played [three center backs] in a couple other games, but that was just primarily because they switched to [playing two forwards],” Schilte-Brown said of the formation shift. “[The idea was to secure] the two forwards with three defenders.”

The shift in defensive shape resulted in a turgid second half that Schilte-Brown described as “not the prettiest.” But with so much on the line, pretty soccer was not the priority. 

Once the job was done, commemorative hats and T-shirts were handed out to each player as the AAC regular season trophy was ushered onto the field. Although no one would have blamed the players for taking a moment to cherish the accomplishment, the seniors were quick to remind their teammates of what was to come.

“The seniors were definitely the driving force,” Schilte-Brown said. “[Ashley Meade] was the one that was telling the girls ‘put the hats away, put the shirts away, put the trophy away, that doesn’t matter. We are onto bigger and better things now.’ Just a true leader. Great, great senior class, we’re truly blessed.”

After closing the regular season on the road in Cincinnati next Sunday, Meade and other seniors will get at least one more chance to play in front of the home crowd in the conference tournament semifinals. The extra home match pushes the motivation needle for the Bulls.

“I mean, we just didn’t want to go to Memphis,” chuckled Schilte-Brown.