Looking to the top: UB soccer team anticipates big season after underperforming last year

womens_soccer_6

Inconsistent road play, scoring problems and mental lapses are not scenarios the Bulls want attributed to their team.

Soccer is looking to return to being the top team in the Mid-American Conference since 2014, when the Bulls won a program’s first MAC Championship, going 16-3-3. The team has had a combined record of 14-17-8 over the past two seasons, losing in the first round of the MAC Championship both years. This season however, head coach Sean Burke is confident that with a strong core of returning players and ten incoming “incredibly talented” freshmen, they will be able to return the team to MAC Championship heights.

“I think this year there is something different about the team that reminds me of that MAC Championship team,” Burke said, as he prepares for his fourth season as the team’s head coach. “They’re hungrier than I have ever seen them before. With the talent we have next year and the progress we have already made this spring, I think we are going to be dangerous come August.”

Burke said the Bulls have not started in the best shape in the past two seasons and end up feeling more comfortable on the field when conference play came around, nearly a month into the regular season. This year, Burke wants to see if the Bulls can compete right at the start of the season.

He will get the chance when the Bulls play their first game Aug. 20 against a tough St. John’s Red Storm. The game will be the first of a four-game road stretch that will start Buffalo’s season.

“We need to know if we can play at a top level right at the start,” Burke said. “We can’t be dropping games on the road and winning some, we need to be consistent. The only way to know if we are there is to start the season against four tough road teams.”

Burke said he never knows how the season will go, but this year he is confident the Bulls can produce from the start thanks to improvements on the offensive side. He said the team has found its “killer instinct” offensively and is now ready to address the scoring issues that have plagued the team for the past two seasons.

Senior forward Carissima Cutrona agreed with Burke’s sentiment, claiming the team has “really come together” this past spring and can only improve moving forward.

“Things are clicking already and we can see it in the way we attack the goal,” said team co-captain Cutrona. “We have made some changes that are going a really long way and will help us reach our full potential after under-performing these past two seasons.”

Cutrona is one of the Bulls’ top scorers, leading the team in goals two seasons ago and having a total of seven goals last year. She said she is disappointed in her own performance the past two years and feels the team hasn’t lived up to its potential. Her hope is that the team can finish better at the net and carry their scoring momentum from game to game.

Cutrona said the incoming freshman she played with have already impressed her and feels they will come in looking to make an impact for the Bulls.

“We are already looking to be a stronger team then we were at the end of last season,” Cutrona said. “The talent we have coming in makes me excited, and we already have a bunch of great players on the team as is. The returning players have all stepped up this spring, getting closer with one another and getting those extra reps in when we can.”

Cutrona said the results can already be seen in practice and feels this is the season the Bulls can return to the MAC Championship. Burke said he agrees with Cutrona and is already noticing improvements that he feels will fix both the scoring and road issues the team has faced these past two seasons.

“If we can score more, we will obviously win more, which will help keep the team consistent all year,” Burke said. “A strong defense has always been a constant for this team, so it’s really about both sides producing at that high level I know we can reach.”

Burke equated much of last year’s struggle to a new offensive scheme he tried to implement. After the team lost its first three game to start last season, he said the Bulls returned to their offensive scheme from the season prior.

“That falls on me as a coach and not on the girls, I tried to give it a go and quickly realized I was wrong,” Burke said.

Defensively, the Bulls have been solid, only letting up more than two goals in two games last season. Junior guard and co-captain Gurjeena Jandu said that the defense also gained a more attack-oriented mindset and feels they will be even better on the other side of the field. Jandu said that with the returning players they have on defense, it will be easy for the new talent to get accustomed to the team.

“I think my own experience being on the team will help in making the new players feel more comfortable,” Jandu said.

Jandu is coming off a standout year on defense where she was a centerpiece to the Bulls’ defensive scheme. Now in her third year as a starter, she said this feels like the season Buffalo will return to their winning ways.

Jandu said the Bulls have never looked better defensively, with plenty of experience and a fresh patch of talented new players. Even with the loss of goalkeeper Laura Dougall, Jandu is not nervous about how the team will fair defending their net.

“I haven’t played with either of the new goalkeepers but everything I have heard and seen has been really impressive,” Jandu said. “Laura was great but I’m confident we will be just as good at the net as we were last season.”

Burke said incoming freshman goalkeeper Emily Kelly was “serious talent” who he believes will come in and make an immediate impact for the team. Burke even went on to call this past years recruiting class, “the best I have seen during my time here.”

“There is always two or three of the new players who come in and step up,” Burke said. “I really feel she [Kelly] will be one of them and I am interested to see who else will come ready to go.”

The Bulls will play their first game on Aug. 20 and their first home game on Sept. 8 against the Canisius Golden Griffins.

Thomas Zafonte is the Senior Sports Editor and can be reached at: thomas.zafonte@ubspectrum.com & @Thomas_Spectrum