TAMPA — In many ways, tonight will not be a traditional Senior Night for USF men's soccer, which suits coach George Kiefer just fine.
The Bulls, ranked fifth in the NCAA's RPI ratings, are playing their final home game of the regular season at brand-new Corbett Soccer Stadium, yes, but the Bulls have played well enough that they'll host a Big East quarterfinal next weekend, and possibly multiple games in the NCAA Tournament.
"That makes Senior Night a lot easier. Sometimes Senior Night can focus on the wrong things to win a game," Kiefer said. "Whereas, we can honor them, then blow the whistle. There's no goodbyes. Focus on the game."
USF, 11-2-2 and riding a six-game winning streak, will honor only two seniors tonight, in defender Trey Perry and midfielder Sebastien Thuriere (Seminole). Kiefer was impressed to hear senior goalkeeper Chris Blais politely decline to be recognized with the others, having already been honored last year at Michigan before joining the Bulls as a graduate transfer.
"It says a lot about him, and a lot about his folks who raised him. He's been a real asset to this team," Kiefer said. "Chris is very calm. He's won a Big Ten championship and is now helping us in the Big East. These games, he's been there, he's been through the war."
Blais helped Michigan to a Big Ten title and a trip to the NCAA College Cup national semifinals last season, and his transfer helped the Bulls weather the loss of All-American keeper Jeff Attinella. Blais had a 1.31 goals-against average at Michigan last year, and dropped that to 1.03 this season, with five shutouts among the Bulls' 11 wins. Tonight, he's yielding to his classmates who have waited four years for their Senior Night.
"I want it to be about Trey — he's the leader of this team and I want it to be about him," Blais said. "He's grown with the program, and this makes it more special for him. We want to give him another win and go from there."
USF (11-2-2) can clinch the Big East Red Division with a win and a Rutgers tie or loss tonight. The two seniors to be honored were on the field for the Bulls' Big East championship in 2008, with Thuriere scoring the winning goal in overtime to beat St. John's.
Blais is one of several newcomers playing key roles for the Bulls — junior college transfer Dom Dwyer, originally from London, leads the Big East with 14 goals, and the team's assist leader is freshman Wesley Charpie of Tarpon Springs. Part of the team's strong play has been the familiarity that comes with a new lineup spending a full season on the field together.
"We've started to figure each other out a little more," Blais said. "A lot of teams have played together three or four years. Most of the guys here, it's our first year together. We've definitely started clicking, but once this team starts playing full 90-minute games, we'll really see what we're all about and what we can do."
GETTING AHEAD: The best evidence that the new Muma Center basketball practice facility can help in recruiting is that Stan Heath has three commitments from top players in the early signing period, including Flint (Mich.) G JaVontae Hawkins.
Hawkins is the first national top-100 player to commit to the Bulls out of high school, and he joins two junior college standouts, C Waverly Austin and G Musa Abdul-Aleem. Heath has one scholarship left for another big man and hopes to have that filled by next month's early signing period. Doing so would allow him to use his spring to focus on 2013 recruits
THIS AND THAT: USF leads the Big East in penalty yards and ranks 12th nationally at 66.9 yards per game. That's up 45 percent from last year's average of 46.1 yards, and even higher than USF's average (66.4) in five Big East seasons under Jim Leavitt. … The women's soccer team missed the Big East tournament, and volleyball is in danger of the same. The Bulls are 5-3 in conference play, putting them a game ahead of the eighth and final spot in the league tournament. Four of the last six games are at home, but the next three are against Louisville (8-1), Cincinnati (7-2) and Villanova (6-3). … Softball coach Ken Eriksen was coach for the U.S. national team in the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, where the Americans went 9-0 to win the gold medal, outscoring opponents 78-8.