No holding Kiefer back in USF's NCAA soccer run
TAMPA -- Growing up on Long Island, even at age 4, George Kiefer so loved the game of soccer that his mother had to literally tie him to a chair to keep him off the field as he watched his older brother's games.
"I would just want to run on the field," USF's men's soccer coach of 10 years said Monday as his team prepares for an NCAA tournament Elite Eight match Saturday at No. 2-seeded Creighton. "He was much bigger and older, but I just had to get out there. It's always been soccer."
Aside from perhaps his restraint on the sidelines, little has changed in Kiefer, who has the Bulls making their fifth straight NCAA appearance, solidifying their status as the most successful team on campus. Players will tell you they get their toughness from their coach, who will tell you he got his from a humble, hardscrabble upbringing in the white-collar Long Island hamlet of Bay Shore.
"I come from a small house, just my mother's income (as a hairdresser). Worked hard," Kiefer said. "The tough part of Long Island. You wouldn't leave with your ball if they didn't put you in the game. You had to fight to be good. I think this team is fighting to be good."
Kiefer has proved himself a great recruiter, with a roster that has players from seven countries on three continents, his top scorer from England, other key players coming from Brazil to Norway. There's a family vibe to the Bulls, something that forged a close chemistry this fall on a roster loaded with newcomers with a common passion for their sport.
"He's almost like a father to us all," said goalkeeper Chris Blais, who helped Michigan to the Final Four last year but transferred to play his final year with the Bulls. "He can be so stern. You don't want to get him mad, but he's always cracking jokes. He's probably the funniest guy on our team. He's a guy you want to go play for. Going back to last week, we all wanted to beat UCF so bad to prove we were the best team in Florida. Some (players) wanted to do that just for coach. I've been here for a year, but he's a guy I'm going to care about for the rest of my life."
Kiefer played soccer himself for tiny Southern Connecticut State, where he stayed as a coach, helping the Owls win a Division II national title in 1995. After following coach Ray Reid to Connecticut, he won an NCAA title there in 2000, coming to USF in 2002 to start his own program. His Bulls won a Big East championship in 2008 and reached the NCAA Elite Eight that same year, and the freshmen on those teams are now senior leaders with higher expectations.
"It's great that we're at the Elite Eight, but that's not what we're looking to do," Kiefer said. "We're over that. The next step is to get to a Final Four, and we're going to go to Creighton to try to make that happen."
Kiefer is quick to thank USF athletic director Doug Woolard for his support of the soccer, such as the construction of new Corbett Soccer Stadium, which opened this season and drew crowds of 3,000-plus for two home games in the current NCAA run. It's also little things, like Woolard allowing Kiefer to travel to national powers like Akron last year for preseason scrimmages instead of settling for a home exhibition against a lesser opponent.
Ask him about the challenge of playing at Creighton (20-2-0) and Kiefer points to the confidence his team has had on the road all season. In August, the Bulls went to Wake Forest and handed the Demon Deacons their first-ever August home loss before a crowd of 4,123.
"It's their opening weekend, where it's mandatory. The students have to go to that game," Kiefer said. "The Demon Deacon rides out on a motorcycle. After we scored our second goal, a bunch of my guys were on like fake choppers (mimics revving the engine with hands). I was like 'OK. They've got some confidence to 'em."
The Bulls are 13-3-4, giving Kiefer a 115-55-27 record in his 10 seasons, the second-most wins in the program's history -- men's soccer was USF's first sport in 1965, with four NCAA tournament appearances in a five-year span from 1969-73.
"The program has a strong tradition," Kiefer said. "I'm just trying to keep moving it along."
Blais has only been with Kiefer for five months, but said he's never been in a locker room where he hasn't heard a single negative comment about the head coach, even behind closed doors.
Despite a No. 7 seed nationally, Kiefer still enjoys the underdog card, gladly yielding to the higher seed and the familiar motivation it brings his players. The Bulls are one win away from a trip to Alabama for the NCAA College Cup -- pull that off Saturday, they'll have trouble keeping Kiefer off the field in celebration afterwards.
"I think still there's nobody that expects us to go to Creighton and win,"
he said. "I would be shocked if you found one publication that predicts that. I like that. I think it's good. ... Everything my team loves hearing is there for us. As far as, OK, it's a streak. We like to beat streaks. It's on the road; we're undefeated on the road. ... We look forward to that game."