Women’s soccer finished the 2020-21 season on a six-game winning streak and with the best winning percentage in program history.
But the club’s 6-1-1 record wasn’t enough to earn them a MAC East title or a MAC Championship Game bid, thanks to COVID-19 related cancellations and a simple misprint in the conference rulebook.
That sting is still fresh on the returning players’ minds, and is being used as motivation this season, which is scheduled to begin Thursday against West Virginia.
“We really felt that we deserved a chance to compete for the MAC Championship last year,” team captain Marcy Barberic told The Spectrum in an interview prior to the season. “And not being able to compete really hurt us. But we’re going to use it as motivation and as fuel to the fire and to come out and win as many games as we can.”
Entering his eighth season at the helm of the team, head coach Shawn Burke hopes his club takes the lessons they learned last season and continues to appreciate the opportunity they have to to compete during the pandemic.
“We’ve all just lived 18 months through a pandemic and had so much taken away from us,” Burke said. “And I want them to just enjoy the fact that we’re almost back to normal and enjoy every moment of playing and competing for a shot at a championship. I think that’s the focal point for us this season. I’d be lying if I said they still didn't have that bitter taste in their mouths about how it all went down, though.”
The women’s club played in front of empty stadiums all season because of the pandemic. Fans are a key component to both collegiate and professional sports, but due to COVID-19, they were largely absent from competitions for much of 2020.
The families and friends of the student-athletes will be in the stands again this season, something the women’s team says it is grateful for.
“Having fans is such a game changer for us,” co-captain Gianna Yurchak said. “Being able to play in front of the Western New York community and especially with how many locals we have on our team is amazing and really makes the game just that much different and worthwhile.”
Barberic, a Buffalo native, couldn’t bear the thought of not having her family scream her name during home games.
“Every home game, my parents were always there and not seeing them during last season really made me sad,” Barberic said. “But the fact that they’ll be able to come and support me and the rest of the team just adds to the excitement for the season to start.”
The team will revert to a non-conference schedule, which means stiffer competition in the form of teams like West Virginia, Yale and UConn. Playing these major opponents not only makes the Bulls better and more prepared, but allows room for growth and confidence leading into MAC play.
“We are excited to play those teams,” Yurchak said. “We prepare for it just like any other game. Having that outside competition is nice early on to get us prepared for the games that matter most. Being able to hang with those types of teams will be a major confidence boost and hopefully, we can walk away with a few wins.”
The team has a remarkable 22 returning players this season — a tremendous veteran presence for a battle-tested squad.
Burke says he expects the team’s experience and continuity to be some of their strongest attributes this season.
“It really speeds up the process of getting the newcomers accustomed to the system and now we operate,” Burke said. “Consistency is the biggest thing here. Last spring, they just kept handling what was thrown at them and being professional about it. Everyone on this team has this hard-working attitude in the way they approach the game, and that’s how we’re going to see positive results early on.”
Barberic, who was named second-team All-American in 2020, says she looks forward to helping the new athletes acclimate this season.
“Our experience is what we’ll be using to our advantage entering the season,” Barberic said. “Nearly everyone knows the system and it won’t be hard to teach the new athletes the ways and how we approach each game. Once they’re ready, we will all be in sync.”
A typical season concludes in late October or early November; the 2020 campaign finished in April, because of the pandemic. Despite the short offseason, the team insists it is eager for the season.
“It’s more exciting than anything,” Yurchak said. “We haven’t been apart for that long at all and to be able to play a season again and keep that momentum and chemistry going is what really matters.”
UB will take on West Virginia in Morgantown, WV on Friday, before hosting Niagara for their home opener on Sunday.
Hunter Skoczylas is the assistant sports editor for the Spectrum and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @HunterSkoczylas
Hunter Skoczylas is the assistant sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found looking up random sports statistics, posting memes on Twitter, and dedicating his Sunday afternoons to watching the Buffalo Bills.