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Battle for the Mayor's Cup

For University of South Florida senior R.C. Campagnolo, soccer is a lot like chess. And during this season, Campagnolo has been a Gary Kasparov in cleats, surveying the board and his players, plotting several moves in advance, then artfully executing them.

Campagnolo has three goals and six assists for USF (11-2-2), which plays host to the University of Tampa (11-2-1) in the 11th annual Mayor's Cup tonight at 7:30.

But those numbers belie Campagnolo's contribution.

Campagnolo mans the apex of the Bulls' inverted pyramid of central midfielders and, like a point guard in basketball, is responsible for making the first pass. A poor one ends any USF attack before it can unfold.

"R.C.'s involved in our transition, so he has to read the game," said USF coach Jay Miller. "He runs the machine. He's the one that distributes the ball and lets us use all of our weapons."

Like fellow senior and leading scorer Bobby Wetzork.

In a crucial Sun Belt Conference game at Virginia Commonwealth last week, Campagnolo received the ball on the left side, spied Wetzork streaking down the right side and boomed a near-perfect pass to him.

"I yelled R; I didn't even get to the C, and he laid it out for me so I could run onto it," said Wetzork, who has 15 goals. "He did it without even looking up. But we've been playing (together) for four years and I expect that from him."

The net result: a goal and a 1-0 USF win.

Besides his playmaker-role, Campagnolo helps fortify the defense and adds the occasional kick to the offense. He goes forward and backward more than a student driver trying to parallel park.

For example, with USF leading Western Kentucky 1-0 with about 30 minutes left to play last Friday night, Campagnolo unhesitatingly launched a goal from about 35 yards out between a herd of defenders.

"He's very skillful, but we keyed on him a little more and I think he had some troubles as the playmaker," said Western Kentucky coach David Holmes. "But R.C. can do a lot of things to win games. He stepped up and scored a brilliant goal and that was really the difference."

The Bulls went on to a 3-1 win, which puts them in position to claim at least a share of the conference championship when North Carolina-Charlotte comes to Tampa on Friday night.

"He's really taken control of the team," said junior midfielder Mark Chung, who teamed with Campagnolo at the last two U.S. Olympic Sports Festivals. "He boosts us up emotionally at the right time and his passing, well, he almost always makes the correct decision."

Interestingly, Miller spent the last two seasons trying to put Campagnolo in a spot where he wouldn't have to make many decisions at all.

"His nemesis was that he tried to do too much," said Miller, who recruited Campagnolo out of Bishop Verot High in Cape Coral as part of his first USF recruiting class in 1987. "He didn't realize he didn't need to be involved in every attack, every play."

So, Miller utilized him primarily as a defender. In 36 games as a sophomore and a junior, Campagnolo had just 32 shots, one goal and six assists.

But competing against the best amateurs in the nation, both at the Sports Festivals and for the national champion St. Petersburg Kickers last summer, has changed him, physically and emotionally.

"You have to play the most intense soccer," he said. "Even the juggling before practice is intense. It helped my game 100 percent.

"My game is accuracy and good vision. And I get more out of assisting (on a goal) or making a good pass as scoring a goal."

So this season, Miller opted to throw a "more mature, more skillful" Campagnolo in the thick of things. And his performance is one reason USF still has a shot at a NCAA Tournament bid.

"The first thing that strikes you is his physical presence (6-feet-1, 185 pounds) and his good technical skill," said Old Dominion coach Ralph Perez, a former assistant coach for the U.S. World Cup team.

"He positions himself very well to receive the ball and when he gets it, he already has an idea of where it should go. He's always thinking and he gives them something a lot of coaches would love to have _ a player who can go forward and get back."

Check and mate.