I've delayed this three weeks because of my own reticence to write it and other big news periods in the revenue sports. But it's time for our season postmortem on UB Women's Soccer's historic run to the program's first MAC Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.
This year is the first that Bull Run has been able to write on every competition for every team, and it was a heck of a year to start, as the fall season saw a number of program highs and firsts across the board. Women's Soccer highlighted it all.
There are throughout the piece links to stories from the season. We wrote over a novel-length amount of words on this team, in part because of a schedule that made it easy to get to a lot of games, and in part because they just gave us so much to write about.
I will never eat enough crow for this one: At the beginning of the year my biggest question for this team was new Coach Shawn Burke, who went against the grain of the eight previous Danny White hires in that he was both an internal candidate and competed at Division II Mercyhurst instead of college's highest level. He did, however, lead the Lakers to a #1 ranking and the final four.
In another season preview piece, you'll find this remarkably prescient quote from John McWhinnie:
If the Bulls can find a player that can score on a consistent basis, and have a goaltender that can be consistent, the Bulls will be in great shape because the back four is arguably one of the most experienced and talented in the MAC.
We're good at what we do here at Bull Run.
Once the season got started, it got started fast. The ladies did their part in UB's Big Four supremacy with a season-opening 1-0 win against St. Bonaventure, capped by a last-second Laura Dougall save. Remember that for later. A second Big Four win over Canisius came two days later, and the sweep of local rivals came with a Sunday night win over Niagara two weeks later, though not before Dougall was injured on a play from the Niagara forward that I'm still upset about.
Sandwiched in between those three wins - all shutouts - were a pair of shutouts good for a win and a tie against two Pennsylvania opponents in Drexel and Duquesne. Katie Roberts scored her first of the season in the win over the Dragons.
In these five season-opening matches UB did not allow a goal, a program-record to start the season that would extend to a program-record, period in their sixth contest. Ainsley Wheldon's departure was a big preseason question. The good news has been Dougall is an excellent goaltender. Wheldon was an excellent goaltender and we're lucky to have them back-to-back.
The unbeaten and shutout streak ended in UB's sixth game: a road trip to top-ten (at the time) Virginia Tech. Dougall was still out with a presumed concussion, and midfielder Ashley Evans was forced to play in net as Buffalo had no healthy keepers. The Bulls would lose 5-0 on the same day as the football loss to Baylor.
If the Virginia Tech loss was not unexpected, the next one was. Dougall returned to net and UB got an opening goal from Julia Benati. A pair of uncharacteristic goals-against, however, thwarted the Bulls, who fought back to a 2-2 tie before ceding a third, and Buffalo lost 3-2. Eight of UB's 13 regular season and MAC Championship goals against came in that two game stretch.
UB got back on track in MAC play and never slowed down again going undefeated against all comers from the conference. They are only the third women's soccer team in the history of the MAC to accomplish that.
It started out with a pair of road wins, including a double-overtime thriller won by Katie Roberts in Athens. Roberts stayed hot in a pair of home games, scoring thrice against Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan. Around here was when I really started to get excited for this team: Bowling Green was unable to complete a pass for nearly 30 minutes in the second half, and Eastern Michigan, who traditionally has a strong team, looked just as bad, if not worse against the Bulls in the rain.
Another road trip led to a pair of ties against Northern Illinois and Western Michigan. It's not the best result you could hope for, but we'd see both squads later pull upsets in the MAC tournament to reach the semifinals. The team remained in first place despite the two ties, and would never let anyone get close, again. Because they beat everyone.
After a pair of wins over Central Michigan and Toledo, it was time to seriously start looking at the MAC seeding. A quirk of the conference schedule meant that Miami, Ball State, and UB - the top three teams in the conference - would all play each other and Akron in a mini-round robin over the last four matches. The head-to-head over Miami was the most crucial, but the Cardinals were also within striking distance and a Ball State win would really make things messy.
Enter Katie Roberts. Ball State took a shocking first-half lead on the Bulls on a 45th-minute penalty kick, but the second half was all UB. And I do mean *ALL* UB, who played their best 45 minutes of the year to that point. The tying goal was, fittingly, the prettiest start-to-finish of the season. I'll just quote myself:
Suddenly, all those just-missed passes and loose balls from the first half, and all those just-over-the-bar shots from the second came together for 15 seconds of perfect offense at the 70-minute mark. After Ball State got two clearances and looked to flip the field, Courtney Mann was able to pressure the ball carrier into sending it downfield, where Jackie Hall quickly met the ball and pushed it back up. Andrea Niper controlled it on the far sideline, heading it upfield before stepping around a defender to retrieve it, only to send a pinpoint pass down the sideline to Carrero, who did her thing in undressing her defender and sending an out-curling pass into the center of the field.
I don't know how much the ball missed the defender's foot by. I'd truthfully like to not think about it. But it did miss, and curled just enough to roll past the sliding defender to Katie Roberts, who beat the goalie to her right and put it in the lower right hand corner to tie the game. It was a tremendous beginning-to-end effort:
If you click through no other link in this article, watch this goal with the buildup. It should start at 2:00:33, but if not that's what you want:
UB would win that game after Roberts scored her second in overtime; a penalty kick after Ball State committed a handball in the box. The Sunday afternoon match against Miami could clinch the MAC #1 seed for the Bulls.
Before that, though, we and UB celebrated the seniors. The eight-woman class is the third-largest of any 2014-15 UB team, and largest by percentage, though Jackie Hall will be returning thanks to a prior redshirt and goalies Mackenzie White and Sarah Moore unfortunately did not get any playing time this year. Between Roberts, Megan Giesen, Courtney Mann, and Sophie Therien, the Bulls will lose nearly their entire column in the middle of the field.
If the second half against Ball State was UB's best 45 minutes of soccer to date, they topped it for the full 90 against Miami. Miami was a good team, but Buffalo took a first-half lead on Angel Hart's first career goal and limited the Redhawks to zero shots on goal in the first half, just to show they meant business. The 2-0 win clinched for UB the #1 seed in the MAC Championship and the right to host the semifinals and final should they reach the final four.
in the next week we tried to put some perspective on what was already a UB and MAC record-breaking season, and also watched on nervously as Akron scored on an uncharacteristically sloppy team in a trap game in the regular season finale, though the Bulls were able to pull away in the second half.
The MAC Quarterfinal win against Toledo was similarly concerning, as UB did not score in the first half before taking a 1-0 lead on a goal that is credited to Roberts but really happened because Celina Carrero chased and won a ball down the sideline that she had no business winning. The insurance goal, from freshman Alex Lambert to sophomore Andrea Niper, was the first career point for both women and came on a play that Buffalo had just missed maybe three or four times in the previous five minutes.
Off the field, we had two big stories between the quarterfinals and the semis the following Friday: We looked back on "The Biggest UB Story You Don't Know," a tragic day in collegiate sports history, for which UB won a national sportsmanship award, and celebrated the MAC postseason awards, which went entirely to UB.
Buffalo became just the second school to sweep the MAC individual awards, and first to do it since the conference split the former Player of the Year award into separate offensive and defensive recognitions. Coach Burke was the obvious choice for Coach of the Year, while Katie Roberts, Jackie Hall, and Laura Dougall cleaned up Offensive Player, Defensive Player, and Freshman of the Year Awards.
Roberts, Hall, and Dougall were joined by Courtney Mann on the All-MAC First Team. Celina Carrero and Sophie Therien both made the second team, though I don't think anyone other than Roberts and Miami's Kelsey Dinges on the first team had better numbers than Carrero. But the coaches voted EMU's Angela Vultaggio on, which not only bumped Celina off, but put the first team down to three backline spots, which hurt Therien. Very sad.
Julia Benati joined Laura Dougall on the All-MAC Freshman team. They were the first Bulls named to the squad since current junior Kristin Markiewicz did it in 2012.
Despite all those awards, there was still a championship to win. Ball State's tall backline and speed on the wings once again gave UB trouble. All of Jackie Hall's goals this year came on set pieces, and she converted a free kick right after half to put the Bulls up. The Cardinals tied it 13 minutes later when Dougall kept a shot in play but couldn't get to the rebound. After that, UB did their thing and overwhelmed their opponents. It took 48 minutes, until the teams were on the brink of penalty kicks, but Andrea Niper did it again: her second goal in two games, this one from 25 yards out after a nice stiff-arm to fight off a defender, propelled UB into their first-ever MAC Championship Game.
The other side of the bracket had seen a number of upsets and UB dodged both Miami and Eastern Michigan in the championship game. They did, however, draw Western Michigan, one of three MAC teams to tie the Bulls, one of only four to score a goal, and the only other who limited shots like UB's backline. The Broncos advanced to the final by preventing Northern Illinois from getting any shots on goal, and their own freshman goaltender Stephanie Heber had a fractionally better GAA than Dougall, albeit in five fewer games. (Both goalies would this year break the previous MAC record for GAA over a season.)
At the halftime break of the final, it was clear that we were watching a championship match. UB played well, and so Western Michigan, who like Ball State were fast and tall on the backline to negate mistakes, in opposition to UB's calm and smooth defense.
Like usual it was a better second half for the Bulls, but UB was consistently derailed by a very physical Broncos team and a a ref that, while not atrociously lopsided, was certainly inconsistent. Coach Burke told me after the game that over the course of the season he had only been twice warned by a ref, and it was this particular official both times.
UB continued to press and get progressively better chances, and once again I'll quote myself:
At 80 minutes UB finally got a call: A great ball wide to Kristin Markiewicz ended with the junior on the ground and the WMU challenger carded for a yellow.
I said above that this was the most physical game I'd seen since Niagara. In that one the game-winner came on a Sophie Therien free kick to Jackie Hall. Today, from maybe seven yards closer, the two seniors did it again to give the Bulls an exhilarating 1-0 lead with just nine minutes to go. It was Hall's fourth of the season - all coming on set pieces.
In the final five minutes Buffalo got a few more great chances and Dougall snuffed out the few desperate attempts WMU was able to build up. Just like the season-opening win against Bonaventure, the game ended as Dougall pushed a shot wide and past the end line.
Buffalo had steadily climbed the RPI rankings all year, and jumped all the way to 32 as a result, also getting notice in the regional and national coaches' polls, in which they were ranked fourth in the Great Lakes and received votes outside of the top 25.
With a convenient eight NCAA-qualifying teams in the Northeast and New Jersey, and none closer to the west and south than Dayton, UB fell victim to geography and drew #6-ranked Penn State in the first round. The Nittany Lions had risen as high as #4 before losing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to Northwestern and were a game or two away from a top seed. Despite UB's strong resume on the cusp of the top-30, they were getting the Nittany Lions no matter what after Syracuse failed to qualify. If we do this more often, we're going to be traveling to Penn State a lot.
In the game itself, the Nittany Lions owned the early emotional advantage and scored just a few minutes in. UB was able to lock down and slowly fight their way out of their own end, but Penn State forced the Bulls to make decisions faster than they had all season, and were more precise with every touch than any team I saw all year. We headed into the half trailing just 1-0, but lost Jackie Hall at the very end to a concussion suffered defending a free kick.
With a different backline for the first time since Bonaventure, UB couldn't hold up. We did, at least, get a goal, as Roberts converted a penalty kick thanks to some Buffalo pressure against PSU's subs, and Kassidy Kidd, who has strangely gone unmentioned this long, came within inches of getting a second. The season on the field ended with a 4-1 loss to a team that was one of the last eight teams standing nationally. The reality is, once you make it to the conference tournament, only one team gets to finish their season with a win.
More recently, the awards have continued to come for UB, who enjoyed a strong presence on the All-WNY Team, and saw leading scorer Katie Roberts up for Soccer News Net's Women's Player of the Year Award.
The only other news that's come since is recruiting. Soccer is one of the few sports that doesn't apply during the Fall Early Signing Period, but we know things anyway, because once again, we're good at what we do.
Here's who we know about. You'll note that UB continues to reach into Canada, which is a good move considering just how many people live in Southern Ontario:
- A player, first name Rebecca, who plays striker in the Toronto area, has already gotten to know a few players on the current team, and was in attendance at the regular-season win over Miami and the MAC Championship game.
- Gurjeena Jandu of the Mississauga Panthers club program, who might not be coming to Buffalo until 2016? I'm not 100% sure.
- Rachel Villalta, who is definitely a senior at Shattuck St. Mary's in Minnesota, which is where we got Sophie Therien and Mackenzie White, and even Abdulla Al-Kalisy on the men's side, so that's cool. Rachel is originally from Godfrey, Ontario.
- Bri Shingary of Medina, Ohio, who had 14 goals and 7 assists heading into the postseason. She was originally committed to Cleveland State, but will come to Amherst after the Vikings' previous coach resigned and she got to know Coach Burke and make a visit to the current Bulls team.