The No. 22 USF women’s soccer team hosts NC State in the first round of the NCAA tournament Sunday, a team that may not look daunting at first glance, but impresses upon a closer look.
Led by ninth-year coach Tim Santoro, the Wolfpack (8-8-2, 4-6 ACC) played the second-toughest schedule in the country this season with eight opponents ranked in the top 40 by the Rating Percentage Index. They have two standout wins over national powerhouse programs No. 12 Duke and No. 4 North Carolina.
“Having played the opponents they have, they’re well seasoned, they’re ready,” coach Denise Schilte-Brown said after practice Wednesday. “There’s a lot of opportunity to learn from the games they’ve already played because they played similar opponents to us. For scouting purposes, that helps a lot.”
The main power struggle to watch for is the battle for possession throughout the game. Under Schilte-Brown, the Bulls (12-3-3, 6-1-1 AAC) have played a controlling, possession-heavy style of soccer for years. NC State follows the same blueprint, which should provide for a fluid game.
“We definitely like to keep the ball. That’s something we’ve done since my freshman year here,” senior midfielder Sabrina Wagner said. “The more we have the ball, the better we do during the game. So going out and playing against another team with that same style, it can definitely be hard.”
One opposing player the Bulls must gameplan for is sophomore forward Jameese Joseph. The striker leads the team in both goals (8) and points (18). Her performances this season resulted in Second Team All-ACC honors.
“I think NC State’s style of play makes [Joseph successful],” Schilte-Brown said. “She’s tenacious, fast and makes some good runs. [It’s a reward for them,] keeping the ball and finding those opportunities [for her to shine].”
Corralling Joseph will be the main task for senior defender Chyanne Dennis and her defensive partner freshman Vivianne Bessette. The two have commanded the Bulls’ backline for the last two seasons and their confidence in each other is paramount.
“I think we stack up well [with their forwards],” Dennis said. “If we go out there and we perform and we do what we know we can, then we can compete with [anyone.]”
As this is the first time the Bulls are hosting an NCAA tournament game since 2018, they are hoping for a big turnout at Corbett Stadium.
“I think it’s always great to get to play at home, we have such an advantage [here],” Dennis said. “After losing [the AAC tournament final on penalties], we weren’t exactly sure where we would be in the NCAA Tournament. So to be able to host the first round, it’s definitely a great feeling.”
For Dennis, Wagner and other seniors, one final opportunity to win a national title at USF is their ultimate motivation.
“We know this is it for a lot of us,” Wagner said. “I know for sure this is it for me. So I know I’m going to give it everything I have. And I know the girls on the field and everyone on the bench, we’re all going out with that same mentality.”
The Bulls received an at-large bid to the tournament following yet another AAC regular season championship, their sixth title overall in five years. The only thing that kept them from repeating as conference tournament champions, and an automatic bid, was a poor shootout against Memphis on Nov. 7.
“It was just a bad display from players to coaches to the whole thing,” Schilte-Brown said. “So it’s got to be 10 times better and we’ll be ready. We’ll change the order of penalty takers who might shoot. We’re gonna sort that out.”
With the pain of that loss so fresh in the memory, Dennis is eager to get back on the field and prove the team is better than their previous showing.
“The best team doesn’t always win,” she said. “[Sunday] is really just about going out there to play soccer. The ball is round.”
USF and NC State will play Sunday at 1 p.m. in Corbett Stadium. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.