‘No more tomorrow’ for UB women's soccer heading into MAC Tournament

Bulls look to repeat as champions

Last week, the women’s soccer team clinched a spot in the Mid-American Conference Tournament for the second consecutive year.

But even before the playoff nod, the team was already playing as if its season and a chance to repeat as MAC Champions were on the line.

“We’ve been in playoff mode for about three weeks,” said head coach Shawn Burke. “Our mentality hasn’t changed too much. Now we’re getting to the point where there’s no more tomorrow. You got to get ready and I think the girls are up for the challenge.”

And their chances to repeat got much better on Thursday.

The Bulls (11-6-2, 7-3-1 MAC) defeated Akron (6-12-1, 3-8 MAC) 3-1 on Thursday to clinch the MAC East for the second consecutive year and earn the No. 3 seed in the upcoming MAC Tournament this weekend.

With the victory, Buffalo also clinched at least one game at UB Stadium, beginning Sunday at 1 p.m. against the Central Michigan (6-10-2, 5-5-1 MAC) in the Quarterfinals. It was an advantage Burke wanted his team to have against a team like the Chippewas.

“When you look at this conference and you see how close the margin is from top to bottom, you want every advantage you can get,” Burke said. “This group plays very well at home on the turf … Central Michigan is a good team. You want every advantage you can get.”

The Chippewas are a “well-coached, organized” team led by a knowledgeable head coach in Peter McGahey, according to Burke. He also added they’re going to be a tough team to break down because of their physical play and their ability in playing a full 90-minute game.

Burke admitted Central Michigan is going to be no easy task to take down despite Buffalo’s most recent matchup against the Chippewas. On Oct. 18, the Bulls took down Central Michigan 3-0 in what Burke calls the teams’ “best performance of the year.”

Sophomore midfielder Julia Benati was the first player to score in that game, her second-to-last goal during the season.

Her most recent? Thursday to essentially seal the game for Buffalo.

Benati took a penalty shot in the 78th minute while battling high winds. She slipped it last the goalkeeper on the left side to score the insurance goal.

“I wanted to do it for [junior midfielder] Dana [Lytle] because she worked so hard to get that penalty kick,” Benati said. “I just got on the good end of that goal.”

It was Benati’s sixth goal of the season, which tied her with teammate Kassidy Kidd for the most on the team this season. Benati has gradually become an unspoken leader for Buffalo mainly by being a playmaker this season. Albeit her sophomore status, she is a player that Burke knows is “willing to put the team on her shoulders.”

Benati is one of many players that made a difference this season, but one of the biggest changes was in a personnel switch.

Nearly three weeks ago, the Bulls were sitting only one game above .500 with an outside shot of any home-field advantage for the tournament – if they made it in the first place. It was Burke who noticed something had to change.
And it paid off.

Before the weekend of Oct. 11, Burke switched junior midfielder Andrea Niper to the front of the field and senior defender/midfielder Kristen Markiewicz to the backfield. The results were exactly what Burke was looking for.

Buffalo won five of its last six matches, including four in a row, while senior midfielder Kassy Kidd went on to score four goals in a two-game span from Oct. 11 to Oct. 16.

“Kristen has the experience and was able to solidify some of the communication issues we were having in the back,” Burke said. “Niper’s goal-scoring presence was something we were missing. Those two changes have made massive impacts around everyone around them.”

As the team prepares for its first-round matchup, it’s hard to shed the notion of last year’s team. The 2014-15 Bulls squad were the regular season and Tournament MAC Champions and went undefeated in conference play. It’s different this time around, as Buffalo enters as the No. 3 with just one guaranteed home game.

And there is a different vibe around the locker room this season. Instead of celebrating a playoff berth, the team just wants to focus on what’s next.

“Last year was so special. Being the No. 1 was such a great thing,” Kidd said. “But back when I was a freshman, making the tournament would have been a reason to celebrate. Now, that standard is completely different. Now, we want to be at home and not away.”

Burke is done talking about last year’s team as well. The team he coaches is about to play the first game in the MAC Tournament on Sunday afternoon. And he’s ecstatic about their chances to win it all.

“We’re going to have to listen to the comparisons about last year’s team and everything about how great it was and everything we accomplished,” Burke said. “It took this team a little bit longer to find their stride, but we’re hitting it at the right time.”

The Bulls return home to UB Stadium to face Central Michigan on Sunday in the MAC Tournament Quarterfinals. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.