“We are one” is the women’s soccer team’s motto.
The Bulls proved that sense of unity after winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament following a semifinals win against Miami (OH) and a finals win against Ball State this past week.
UB went undefeated in conference play, with only one loss on the season, against then-No. 3-ranked Rutgers. Riding a 15-game unbeaten streak, the Bulls entered the MAC Tournament as the No. 1 seed with home-field advantage.
The team lived up to its No. 1 ranking by winning the MAC Tournament and clinching UB’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2014.
“It’s been a long time coming,” senior midfielder Leah Wengender said after the final. “I mean, being a senior the last four years, I feel like we’ve just gotten short from being a MAC champion or winning the division.”
UB faced seed No. 5 Miami (OH) (9-5-6, 4-2-5 MAC) on Thursday evening at UB Stadium. The game was physical; Four yellow cards were given out, and Miami and UB committed 18 and 15 fouls, respectively. Freshman defender Ellie Simmons said the team came out “frantic.” The teams were similarly matched in the first half, with UB having five shots and Miami having four.
It wasn’t until the second half that UB found its footing. In the 77th minute, Simmons took a free kick from 20 yards outside of the box. The ball sailed to the head of fifth-year midfielder Hannah Callaghan, who then flicked it into the corner of the net. With 15 minutes left, the Bulls managed to hold onto the 1-0 lead to advance to the MAC finals.
“I think we need to just control our emotions. I know some of the girls, myself included, were nervous going in today,” Callaghan said after the match. “Obviously there is a lot riding on it. I think we just have to be ourselves.”
While the Bulls felt nerves to start the semifinal game, they went into the championship game against Ball State confident.
“I think our biggest challenge was our confidence,” Wengender said. “We were definitely very confident and we were planning on winning and what we were going to do after the win. I think some of us, including myself, got a little carried away with that.”
UB faced Ball State (7-5-8, 6-1-4 MAC) in the final in front of a home crowd on Sunday. Simmons said the Bulls have been a “second-half team,” but they didn’t take long to score against the Cardinals.
In the 18th minute, Wengender netted a shot from 30 yards out to put the Bulls up 1-0. The defense stepped up by not allowing the Cardinals to muster a shot in the first half.
UB slowed down in the second half but still had opportunities. In the 74th minute, sophomore midfielder Kaya Schultz found herself with the ball and some space. She slotted a ball forward between Ball State defenders to sophomore forward Arianna Zumpano, who shot it across the goal to put the Bulls up 2-0. Zumpano tied Guerber for the team lead for goals this season with eight.
The Bulls recorded their 14th shutout of the season and 15th win on the year to be crowned MAC champions.
But it’s not only a strong play on the field that's kept the Bulls together.
“There is not anything that can pull us apart,” freshman defender Ellie Simmons said.
The team tries to cultivate a culture where everyone feels welcome and comfortable. Older players take on the responsibility of helping maintain this identity of closeness and openness that the coaches helped teach them.
“There’s a culture that we try to instill in the group, but at the end of the day, it’s player driven,” head coach Shawn Burke said. “It comes down to the leaders you have in the locker room.”
Simmons was named MAC Defensive Player of the Year, All-MAC first team and All-freshman team. She credits the continuity of the team for her accomplishments during her first year with the Bulls.
“Coming in as a freshman, it’s not easy to get that award. It’s definitely a team award,” Simmons said. “Everyone around me has helped me. It shouldn’t just be me getting the award. It was a whole collective effort.”
Simmons isn’t the only one that credits her individual success to the team. Callaghan won MVP of the MAC Tournament and thanked her teammates for allowing her to find scoring opportunities.
“No individual accolade is just one person’s doing,” Callaghan said. “The backline and everyone else on that field works as hard as possible.”
The team has a larger understanding that no individual success is without the team. Guerber is tied for the most goals on the team this season at eight. She scored five goals in the first four games of the season and then struggled to find the back of the net until game 10 against Toledo. She said the slump affected her confidence but she reminded herself she needed to put the team first before herself. She emphasized that the team can rely on one another.
“When someone is down, someone else is right there to pick them up,” Guerber said.
Experience and leadership are factors Burke highlighted as major contributors to the team’s success. Older players such as Callaghan, Wengender and fifth-year goalkeeper Emily Kelly are examples of experienced players who contributed in big moments this season.
Kelly — who is the winningest goalkeeper in program history — has the most shutouts in program history at 35. Wengender received All-MAC second-team honors and has five goals on the season. Callaghan stepped up to score the game-winning goal in the semifinals against Miami (OH) this week.
While older players are making an impact, underclassmen are stepping up as well. Simmons is one example, as she’s scored two goals and recorded seven assists this season. She also often takes the set pieces for the team.
“It’s not an accident that our freshmen have so much success here,” Burke said. “We have some that start and play significant minutes because they feel comfortable and that’s a testament to our upperclassmen who want them to feel comfortable and make it feel like family right away.”
Burke said the team had been playing some of its best soccer coming into the tournament. Going into their semifinal match against Miami (OH), the biggest concern was managing emotions and pressure.
Lucinida Snyder, the team’s mindfulness coach who has played a large role in UB’s success this season, will continue to provide emotional support for the team. Burke said the team relied on her throughout the MAC Tournament to handle the ups and downs of the playoffs. During the semifinals, Callaghan said she found herself doing breathing exercises Snyder taught her to help regulate her emotions.
While Snyder will help the team’s success, Burke also wants to be able to facilitate open conversations with the team.
“It’s not just another game, so I say we talk about it,” Burke said. “I think to be open about it and honest. It’s okay to be a bit vulnerable and say there are some nerves. I think once you address it you can deal with it.”
Going into the tournament, Burke believed that the team would have the best chance to win if they remained themselves.
With the MAC championship under their belts, the Bulls now move onto the NCAA tournament. They will face the No. 4 seed Pittsburgh (12-4-3, 5-3-2 ACC) on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Pittsburgh is entering the NCAA Tournament after a penalty shoot out loss to Notre Dame in the final of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. The Panthers are making their first NCAA tournament appearance in program history, while UB is set to make their second.
The Bulls and Panthers will face off for the first time since 2010 where UB lost 1-4. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.
“Realizing that people’s records don’t really define the team that they are and going into every single game, knowing that it’s going to be a battle and not taking any minute for granted [is what we need to do]” Callaghan said, discussing Saturday’s matchup against Pittsburgh. “I think that is going to lead us to be successful in the future.”
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