In a matchup of undefeated squads, the USF women’s soccer team proved itself a class above the opposition in a confident 3-0 win over Central Connecticut State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Despite feeling slighted by her team’s seeding in the tournament and concerned about its unfamiliarity with the Blue Devils (7-1, 6-0 NEC), USF coach Denise Schilte-Brown felt the team was prepared to take on the champions of the Northeast Conference.
“We felt really prepared for them. I think they were as good as we thought they would be,” Schilte-Brown said. “But I felt like our game plan was the right game plan and the girls executed.”
The tale of the tape heading into Tuesday’s match in Greensboro, North Carolina, was one of two impenetrable defenses. By the end of the 90 minutes, the Bulls (10-0-2, 6-0-1 AAC) put three past a CCSU defense that had only been scored on once in seven matches.
The first half, although lacking in goals, featured USF in possession more often than not. The Blue Devils were never in a hurry to win back the ball, but rather challenged the Bulls to find a way through their stout backline.
“We typically aren’t fast out of the gates because that’s not our style,” Schilte-Brown said. “Obviously, I didn’t like the heart attack of not scoring in the first half. But I wasn’t surprised the goals came in the second half. That’s not uncommon.”
Aside from a swerving free kick off the foot of senior defender Paula Leblic that smacked the crossbar, USF’s ball control bore no fruit in the first 45 minutes.
Within 10 minutes of the restart, however, the Bulls had their breakthrough. A cross from senior midfielder Katie Kitching found the head of freshman midfielder Chiara Hahn for her first career goal, coming in the 54th minute.
“I think she deserved that moment,” Leblic said of Hahn’s goal. “She’s been working so hard.”
The one-goal lead soon became three within a quarter of an hour thanks to two incredible strikes.
A deflected corner kick in the 64th minute bounced its way to Leblic, who lashed at it on the volley and put it into the back of the net. The goal was also scored with her right foot rather than her preferred left, something she said she’s been working on for a long time.
“In those moments you don’t think, you just execute,” Leblic said. “That’s why we’ve been practicing the whole year, to be able to shoot with [both feet]. At that time I saw a really good opportunity to kick with my right, it was a great goal.”
Five minutes later, freshman defender Vivianne Bessette scored from roughly 35 yards out and put the ball past the unsuspecting CCSU goalkeeper.
“I think it was a really good [strike],” Bessette said. “I don’t think the goalkeeper was ready for it.”
The rocket was just the cherry on top of yet another complete performance from the first-year defender, who secured the Bulls’ eighth shutout this season alongside senior defender Chyanne Dennis. Bessette credited Dennis’ experience for helping manage her nerves.
“I think [Chyanne] is a very composed player, very confident which gives me confidence,” Bessette said. “I know she has my back, I have her back so I think it was great. Of course I was nervous at first. But I told myself ‘It’s just another game.’ I just have to play the way I can play and give it all because it was this game or nothing.
“So I think I gave it all and now we’re on to the next round.”
With a short turnaround before the next match, every minute of rest counted for the starting unit. Similar to the AAC tournament final against Cincinnati, the comfortable advantage allowed Schilte-Brown to rotate in substitutes for the final few minutes.
“One of the things that I enjoyed about this game was that it was a whole team effort,” she said. “It was just excellent to have the whole bench play. We have a great culture on our team in my opinion. The girls love each other, they play for each other and they have fun.”
The Bulls will take the field again Friday afternoon against No. 7 seed Texas A&M. The Aggies were in attendance Tuesday for the Bulls’ victory.
Another win would see the Bulls match their tournament run from 2019 when they reached the third round for the first time in program history. Kickoff for Friday’s second-round matchup is scheduled for 3 p.m.