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Bulls' soccer team hits some snags

A bull market abruptly turned into a bear last weekend, which triggered a reversal of fortunes for the University of South Florida soccer team.

The Bulls had won six straight and earned their first national ranking (No. 14 in the Soccer America poll) since 1983. But they tied Virginia Commonwealth 3-3 on Friday and then lost to No. 10 North Carolina-Charlotte 3-0.

"It's easy to come up with excuses when you lose, but to be honest, we just didn't play the way we're capable of," defender Eric Ravndal said.

"I think we were too concerned with the rankings and too concerned with how we'd move up in the rankings if we won; that psychological state of mind hurt us," added goalkeeper Jeff Gopsill.

But Ravndal, who was forced to move from a defensive midfield position to sweeper when Andy Restrepo was injured and left the game with 13 minutes left in regulation, said morale and confidence remains high.

And the NCAA tournament remains a viable goal, the Bulls insist. USF hasn't qualified for the NCAA since the 1982 season when it finished with a 13-3-3 record.

"We've got some ammunition," coach Jay Miller said, referring to a possible invitation. USF has beaten Stanford and San Francisco and its only loses came to St. Louis, Charlotte and the top-ranked team in Division II, the University of Tampa.

Additionally, the schedule favors the Bulls (7-3-1). Of their last seven games, six are at home, beginning against Florida International on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

"We're just looking forward to rest of our games," Ravndal said. "When you lose like we did Sunday, you just want to get right back in there and prove you're better than your last game. And if we win our last seven, I think we're in."

The runners stumble: The men's cross country team finished a disappointing seventh at the Pre-national Saturday at Indiana, despite entering the race as the highest-ranked team in the 41-team field.

"We all felt a bit flat," said Jon Dennis, who was third in a time of 24:46. "We worked very hard the last two weeks before the race and it showed."

Coach Bob Braman said the team ran hard, but didn't race well.

"I know what they can do and they know what they can do," he said. "If we had run well, we could have killed this field. They have to quit measuring themselves on their best day and everyone else on their worst day."

It didn't help USF, which fell from No. 7 to No. 23 in the NCAA poll, that John Bowden didn't run and Gerallt Owen developed stomach cramps and didn't finish.

Keith Batten was solid, finishing 30th (25:33), but Eddie Melia (82nd, 26:03), Travis Grappo (83rd, 26:04) and Jeff Ausloos (91st, 26:08) had to pick up the slack and didn't. And one of those three will have to run well at the regionals on Nov. 14 at Greenville, S.C.

"We just have to get tougher; we have to get better," Braman said. "We had a great workout (last) Monday. If we ran the race then, we would have won. But they have to want it as much on race day as they do between races. They have to decide if the reward is worth working hard for 25 minutes."

Meanwhile, the women's cross country team has had to alter its goals. Instead of shooting for national recognition this year, it will have to be satisfied with repeating as Metro Conference champion.

"They're all motivated to defend it," Braman said. "But right now, we may only be the third best team."

North Carolina-Charlotte is much improved and Louisville, the Metro runner-up last year, fared better than USF at last weekend's Pre-national. The Cardinals were 12th with 310 points; USF was 15th with 390.

Braman said Aimee Lund, Kara Howell and Jayne O'Conner provide the nucleus for a competitive team, but they need help from Jen Hoke, Claire Orlik, Keisha Wilson and Andee Rudloff.

Friday's Florida State Intercollegiate, at the USF Golf Course, could provide some insight as to whether or not the cavalry will arrive _ for both the women's and men's teams.

Gathering momentum: The volleyball team (9-7 overall, 2-0 in the Metro Conference) has now won four straight matches to break the .500 mark, a feat it didn't accomplish last year until the final regular-season match.

"Our attack percentage is better and we've worked on our digging so we keep the ball on our side and convert the digs to offense," coach Perri Hankins said.

One reason the offense is sharper is the emergence of a middle attack, compliments of Becky Linhart and newcomer Heidi Roarty. Their play has forced opponents to respect the threat of a middle attack, thereby opening up the flanks.

Outside hitter Cara Higgins, who had struggled this year and lost her starting position, was back in the lineup last weekend against Metro rivals Tulane and Southern Mississippi and back in the swing of things. She led the team in kills (25) and digs (31) in the two matches.

Now USF will try to remain unbeaten in Metro play when it travels to Virginia Tech on Friday and Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday. The Bulls started 1-2 in the conference last year and ended up as the fourth seed _ in the same bracket as Louisville.

USF lost to eventual Metro champion Louisville in the semifinals. The Cardinals received the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but conference runner-up North Carolina Charlotte received an automatic berth in the Women's Invitational Volleyball Championships.

"Last year, we felt we were the next best team at the Metro tournament, but that shaky start caused us to be in the same bracket as Louisville," Hankins said.