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UB men’s soccer chases postseason run four years in the making

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UB senior forward Russell Cicerone is not only the best player on UB’s men’s soccer (8-2-1) team, he’s one of the best players in the entire country. In next January’s MLS Superdraft, he has a chance to be one of the first 10 players off the board and selected in the first round.

Often when a mid-level Division-I program like Buffalo ends up with a player of Cicerone’s caliber, they ride them for four years and then revert back to normalcy after said player graduates. However, for UB head men’s soccer coach Stu Riddle, Cicerone is just the biggest, most apparent piece in a puzzle that finally seems to be coming together as he once envisioned it.

Buffalo begins conference play this Friday with a road match against national powerhouse and Mid-American Conference bully Akron (5-3-1). The Bulls’ upperclassmen-laden team, which includes six seniors and seven juniors, is fighting to put UB into the national psyche for years to come.

Four years ago, Riddle turned heads when he left fellow MAC school Western Michigan on his own terms after a very successful four-year tenure to take over a Buffalo men’s soccer program. Although the program had long been a doormat in the MAC, former Buffalo Athletic Director Danny White convinced Riddle that they were a growing school.

Riddle felt he could build the program into a perennial national power that could one day challenge Akron in the MAC.

When he arrived, Riddle brought in an unprecedented 11 players in his first recruiting class, nine of which were freshman.

Riddle sold recruits on the fact that they had the opportunity to come in and build a struggling program into a national powerhouse. They could be responsible for bringing a doormat of a program into national prominence, and in turn, up all of their chances at getting national recognition individually.

Over the last four years Buffalo has quietly, and slowly, done just that.

The first two years of Riddle’s tenure tested the faith of his young players. The team went 8-21-6 in Riddle’s first two years and saw a lot of players give up on Riddle’s plan and transfer.

“The key for these guys is that they’re survivors,” Riddle said. “They’ve seen a lot of faces come and go and they’ve dealt with a lot of adversity over the years, and now they’re reaping the rewards from it.”

A pivotal moment for the program came in the spring of 2015, when they took a 10-day trip to England together. It was a growing experience for many of the players, especially Cicerone. He turned heads in all four of the Bulls’ overseas matchups and stepped into a leadership role off the field.

Last fall, they qualified for their first MAC Tournament since 2011 and after a hard-fought 2-1 win over Western Michigan, they advanced to the MAC Championship Game, where they were a heavy underdog against Akron, who was ranked third in the country at the time.

Akron was expected to roll over the Bulls, who had surprised a lot of people by even making it to the Championship Game in the first place. However, with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line, Buffalo played Akron closer than anyone anticipated. In a chippy, physical game, Akron beat Buffalo 1-0 and then went on to go all the way to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.

Most people didn’t think much of Buffalo’s near-monumental upset. But for Riddle and his players, it was a huge moment.

“The bulk of the team, they’ve played close to 80 games together,” Riddle said. “They’ve had that trip to England, they’ve played in a MAC Championship match and I really think that those were the things that got us over the line.”

UB entered this year with more expectations than in years past, but still, nobody expected them to become a national contender. They’re still not where they want to be just yet, but people are starting to take notice of the program’s rebuild. After a 7-0-0 start to the season, the Bulls received more votes for the NCAA Top 25 than any team in the country to not be ranked. They have received votes for a national ranking in every poll this season since.

Cicerone has removed any doubt that he is one of the best players in the nation. He leads the country with 29 total points and is tied for the country lead with 11 goals. Defensively, the Bulls have kept a clean sheet seven times this season in 11 games.

“We work for each other,” Cicerone said. “We have great chemistry on this team, off the field we’re always hanging out, always best friends with each other and I think our desire to work for each other is our identity as a team.”

In a conference where programs like Akron and West Virginia are able to recruit blue-chip prospects year after year, UB’s team chemistry is what makes them more than the sum of their parts. As a unit, they are as in sync as any team in the conference. Few teams in the nation have as much experience playing together as Buffalo.

As they approach the most important slate of games the program has played in over a decade, Buffalo’s core has its sights set on the NCAA Tournament.

“They’ve achieved what they wanted to achieve except one thing, which is make the NCAA Tournament,” Riddle said.

As long as Riddle is pulling the strings, there’s no doubt Buffalo can and will remain competitive. But whether or not they can become the national powerhouse they’ve set out to become will hinge greatly on the remainder of this season.

“Nobody’s going to recognize us as a winning program until we get the MAC Championship, or into the NCAA Tournament,” Cicerone said.

With their core of players now all grown up, it’s time for Buffalo to make a run in the postseason if they want to have a chance at becoming a national power in the future. Even if they can’t win the MAC Championship, they have a chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with a strong showing in conference play.

In a tough conference, as of right now, UB men’s soccer still remains in a familiar position: underdog. But Riddle and his players refuse to accept that they’re anybody’s underdog. They’ve been waiting four years for this moment and they’re ready to introduce themselves and their school to the world.

We’re Buffalo and we’re always going to fight against the reputation of the program,” Riddle said. “All we gotta do is keep winning and proving people wrong and I’m confident we will do so.”

Michael Akelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at michael.akelson@ubspectrum.com


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