Less is more: Women's soccer wins first MAC Title

The women's soccer team's championship surprises nearly everyone except the Bulls

The Spectrum

Buffalo wasn’t supposed to win.

The women’s soccer team had a new head coach. The Bulls didn’t qualify for the Mid-American Conference tournament last year. They were picked to come in fourth place in the MAC East in the preseason polls.

The polls were released three months ago and the Bulls still haven’t lost a MAC game. Including the postseason, Buffalo is 12-0-2 in its 14 conference games this season.

It’s quite a different story from last year’s six-win season in which Buffalo won only three MAC games.

Buffalo wasn’t supposed to win. Yet, the women’s soccer team was holding a MAC Championship trophy Sunday.

Buffalo scored 14 goals all of last season and won only six games. It took the Bulls only 10 games to surpass their win total and 11 games to surpass last season’s goal total.

Even Athletic Directory Danny White admitted they didn’t expect a women’s soccer title in year one – because, hey, Buffalo wasn’t supposed to win.

Head coach Shawn Burke and his team felt differently. Burke told his players they had the talent to win a championship.

He told White this wouldn’t be a “rebuilding project,” when interviewing for the job. The Bulls were going to compete from day one.

This isn’t breaking news: What new coach – or any coach for that matter – doesn’t tell his players they have the talent to win a championship?

The difference is the Bulls actually did it.

UB isn’t a school rich in athletic tradition. Besides for women’s tennis, football and men’s swimming (all with one title each), no other UB teams have postseason MAC championships. Women's rowing won a Colonial Athletic Association championship in 2010, as it is the only Buffalo varisty sport not in the MAC.

Buffalo wasn’t supposed to win.

White’s coaching decisions are well documented. He’s hired many young “big-time” former college players to lead teams, like softball coach Trena Peel and men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley. Even women’s basketball coach Felisha Legette-Jack and volleyball coach Reed Sunahara were some of the best players in the country before going into coaching.

Burke, too, was a standout soccer player in college. The biggest difference, however, is the school he played at.

Whereas the four coaches listed above played at schools like Duke, LSU, Syracuse and UCLA, Burke starred at Mercyhurst College – a Division-II catholic liberal arts school in Pennsylvania.

He is one of White’s only hires that didn’t come with national name recognition.

But what he lacked in flash he made up for in relationships with the players. Burke served as an assistant for five seasons before taking over as head coach.

Now, I’m not trying to say Buffalo should start hiring all of its assistant coaches, but it’s an interesting change from White’s usual selections.

Buffalo wasn’t supposed to win.

I don’t think there’s another coach in America who could have won a championship this season with the Bulls. And this isn’t because of the roster’s talent, but just the learning curve that comes with a new coach.

Look at this year’s volleyball team. Sunahara had tremendous success at Cincinnati and even coached Team USA volleyball. But the Bulls are struggling this season, largely because of the natural time it takes to learn a new system.

Thankfully, especially for the seniors on this year’s team, the Bulls didn’t have do deal with this.

Burke didn’t make drastic changes – but the ones he made were major dividends.

The Bulls graduated Ainsley Wheldon, one of the most successful goalkeepers in school history. Enter freshman Laura Dougall, who broke nearly every UB single-season goalkeeping record.

Burke moved junior Jackie Hall to the center back position – which is one of the most important defensive positions. Burke said he “needed her on the field for 90 minutes.”

The results? A Defensive Player of the Year award and two goals in the MAC Tournament – including the game-winner in Sunday’s championship game.

“It’s a pretty nice luxury to have as a coach when the Defensive Player of the Year scores a couple of goals on the weekend,” Burke said.

There are a lot of large, bold changes going on at UB right now. But over time, the saying “less is more” continues to prevail. Burke and this year’s women’s soccer team is just another example of this.

Now, the Bulls go on to the NCAA Tournament.

Buffalo wasn’t supposed to win. It doesn’t seem like the Bulls got the memo.

email: owen.obrien@ubspectrum.com