The South Florida men's soccer team can attribute its success this season _ which included a 14-5 regular-season record, 7-3 in Conference USA, and a periodic national ranking _ to its cool under fire.
In the most stressful situations, the Bulls have played their best. USF was 9-1 in games decided by one goal.
"I attribute it to the team's character," coach John Hackworth said. "These (close) games separate the great teams from the also-rans."
Four games went to overtime; USF won all four. The Bulls ended the season with a 1-0 loss to Charlotte that hurt USF's C-USA tournament hopes. The Bulls dropped from the No. 2 to No. 3 seed, costing a first-round bye.
Nonetheless, USF hopes its poise under pressure _ and home-field advantage _ can lift it to the title. The Bulls open against Marquette (10-7-1, 5-5) at 8 tonight at the USF Soccer Stadium.
A victory likely would assure USF an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but the Bulls want more. They want rematches with UAB and Saint Louis.
USF was embarrassed in the regular season by No. 2 seed UAB (3-0 loss) and top-seed Saint Louis (5-1), falling behind early, then falling further behind while pushing forward to get the equalizer.
If they get past Marquette, the Bulls meet UAB (13-4, 7-3) in a Friday semifinal. No. 3-ranked Saint Louis (14-1, 9-1) likely would be the opponent in Sunday's final.
"We've adjusted to the earlier mistakes we've made; we left ourselves vulnerable to counterattacks," Hackworth said. "I think we're definitely a better team. But I know the other teams are better, too."
The six-man defensive rotation in front of sophomore goalkeeper Troy Perkins has been a key as the Bulls have yielded one goal or fewer in 13 of 19 games.
Co-captain Joe Valencia (Largo High), freshman Jared Vock, Brian Mullins and Aaron Ortega have been stalwarts, but Valencia will not play today because of yellow-card accumulation. Also, central defender Casey Stump (Bloomingdale) may be out with a strained medial collateral ligament sustained three weeks ago.
Freshman midfielder Brandon Streicher (Sickles) and Matt Cavenaugh have played every game in the midfield.
"He brings the work ethic to the table," Hackworth said of Cavenaugh.
Jeff Thwaites (Gaither; nine goals), Gabriel Salgado (Plant City; 13 points) and striker Jason Cudjoe (team-high 10 goals) have been the offensive sparkplugs.
Hackworth has been a longtime proponent of having a predetermined site for the C-USA tournament, as opposed to the top seed hosting, thinking the early notice would help generate larger crowds through advance marketing.
The C-USA powers-that-be obliged _ and picked USF as host.
"Hopefully the soccer community will come out and support it," Hackworth said. "There should be some championship-level games."
NOTE: Cudjoe and Thwaites were named to the all-conference first team and Vock and Perkins made the second team. Vock and Streicher were named to the all-freshman team. Saint Louis had the player of the year (Dipsy Selolwane), defensive player of the year (Marty Tappeland) and coach of the year (Dan Donnigan).
C-USA MEN'S SOCCER TOURNAMENT
WHEN/WHERE: Today, Friday and Sunday; USF Soccer Stadium, Tampa.
TOURNAMENT FAVORITE: Saint Louis. The top-seeded Billikens, a perennial national power, are ranked No. 3 in the nation by Soccer America. Their lone loss was 1-0 at UAB, the No. 2 seed. Senior striker Dipsy Selolwane leads the nation in goals with 20, including eight game-winners, and teammates Brad Davis (8 goals, 10 assists) and Jack Jewsbury also are All-America candidates.
TEAMS TO WATCH: Saint Louis (14-1) is the class of the event, but UAB and South Florida also expect to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. The Blazers are the only team to defeat the Billikens.
WHAT USF HAS TO DO: Assuming the Bulls get past Marquette (they beat the Golden Eagles 1-0 on Nov. 7), they will be fatigued for Friday's game against UAB. USF's best plan for the Blazers might be to pack it in on defense, frustrate UAB for a while, and play for the late counterattack.
SCHEDULE: Today _ No. 4 seed UNC-Charlotte (5-4-1 C-USA) vs. No. 5 Cincinnati (5-4-1), 5:30; No. 3 USF (7-3) vs. No. 6 Marquette (5-5), 8. Friday _ Charlotte-Cincinnati winner vs. Saint Louis (9-1), 5:30; USF-Marquette winner vs. UAB (7-3), 8. Sunday _ championship, 1.
TICKETS: Tournament passes are $15 for adults and $7 for children and seniors. Individual game tickets are $6 and $3.
_ Compiled by Pete Young.