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 in 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 as well.
"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 not only a Big Ten title last season but also a trip to the NCAA College Cup national semifinals, and his transfer helped the Bulls weather the loss of an All-American keeper in Jeff Attinella. Blais had a 1.31 goals-against average at Michigan last year, but he's 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 title with a win and a Rutgers tie or loss tonight, and the two seniors honored tonight were on the field for the Bulls' Big East championship in 2008, with Thuriere scoring the game-winning goal in overtime to beat St. John's.
To keep his team sharp, Kiefer addressed the team Tuesday as if it had lost Saturday against Villanova (instead of rallying from a goal down for a 2-1 win), pointing out things to correct and stressing the need to continue to improve with each game. The next step, he said, is seeing his team play a complete game without any letdowns, early or late.
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 just 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."