The bitter taste is still there in the back of their mouths. How could it not be? It has been just five months since the UB women’s soccer team had its NCAA dream ripped away from them due to a Covid-19 scheduling technicality.
Last April, UB finished a truncated MAC season with the most wins in the East. But Bowling Green, which had games postponed by Covid, got the berth in the conference title game because of a higher winning percentage — even though they had lost to the Bulls during the season.
BG was essentially rewarded by being on Covid pause. The UB women howled in protest on social media, incensed that the league had decided not to make up games lost to the pandemic, including a remaining game with BG. The league was unmoved. One of the best seasons in school history came to a sudden, devastating halt.
Now they’re back, 22 returnees in all, every significant player from a year ago. That includes three graduate “super seniors” who took advantage of the NCAA’s decision to give every athlete an extra year of eligibility.
They’re united and resolute, determined to take care of unfinished business. They’re looking to build on last season and get to the NCAA Tournament, spurred on by last year’s injustice, but not consumed by it.
“Obviously, we were devastated by what happened last season,” said Hannah Callaghan, a conventional senior who was MAC Defensive Player of the Year last season. “We went into the season knowing we had a chip on our shoulder, but it’s not really a revenge tour.
“We’ve moved that, but we’ll always have it in the back of our minds.”
The Bulls have won three in a row after an opening 4-0 loss at nationally ranked West Virginia. The soccer season returned to the fall after last year’s campaign was pushed back to spring by the pandemic. UB plays at Canisius College at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Shawn Burke, now in his eighth year as head coach, felt last year’s team was the best since the 2014 UB squad that won the MAC title and an NCAA berth in his first season as head man. It was better offensively than the ’14 team, which had 14 shutouts. But the 2020 squad never got a chance to take its place alongside that team.
“We’re far from hitting our stride,” Burke said. “We’re maybe farther ahead come the beginning of September than we have been in years past, but I think for this team to be on that (NCAA) caliber, we’ve got a little ways to go.”
Marcy Barberic, a second-team All-American and MAC offensive player of the year last season, knows all about that 2014 team. She went to some of their games as a high school sophomore at Grand Island. Those players helped inspire her to come to UB, and she still corresponds with some of them on social media.
“That team was so awesome,” Barberic said before practice at UB Stadium on Tuesday. “They stepped on the field and you could tell they had a mindset that they weren’t going to step off the field without winning, without scoring goals.
“I think this team has that same exact mindset. We are just so determined. This is definitely the best team that I’ve been a part of at UB and I’m really proud of everyone’s determination and perseverance throughout this season and the spring season as well, because it’s the same team.”
Barberic is its emotional and physical heart, a fifth-year senior and third-year captain who was third in the nation in goals per game (1.2) last year. She’s the lone MAC player on the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, awarded annually by the Missouri Athletic Club to the player of the year in college men’s and women’s soccer.
“The Hermann watch list is a bigger deal than people realize,” said Nick Mendola, co-owner of the FC Buffalo soccer teams and a soccer writer for NBC Sports. “We write about college soccer two or three times a year, and one of them is who wins that award.”
Mendola took over FC Buffalo 12 years ago. Last year, they added a women’s team, which played in the United Women’s Soccer league this past summer. NCAA rules limited him to taking five UB players on the roster. It’s a tribute to the talent Burke has assembled that Mendola had trouble deciding which five to take.
Barberic was a lock. “She’s the right combination of strength, style and commitment,” Mendola said. “She’s a competitor, the sort of person who buys into the team concept.”
Burke will attest to that. “When your best player is the hardest-working player in training, you’ve got something really good on your hands,” he said. “And she absolutely, every single day, is typically the best player in training.
“Just because she has the accolades, never for one second does she ever think she made it,” Burke added. “She plays like she has something to prove, and we’re only going to benefit from that.”
Barberic, who has four goals through four games, is a star and leader, someone who will exhort teammates to push her harder in practice. She pointed out how proud she is of this year’s freshmen, who have meshed well with the veterans, despite limited playing time on a squad with so many returnees from a year ago.
It was Barberic who authored the team statement last April that criticized the MAC’s inflexibility in rescheduling games. She also urged the league to reinstate the conference tournament, which had been eliminated for four years in a cost-saving move.
The MAC re-established a conference tournament shortly after last season. They reduced the field to six teams, rather than eight, giving the two division winners a bye to the semifinals. The quarterfinals are Oct. 31. The semis are Nov. 4, the final Nov. 7.
“It was quick, after the fiasco of the way the season ended,” Burke said. “I would say within two weeks, we knew the tournament was coming back.”
Now the Bulls have the tournament to shoot for, the prospect of a first-round bye. Burke has told his players to take advantage of every opportunity. Maybe they can put together a resume worthy of a rare at-large NCAA bid, in case they fall short in the conference tourney.
In the back of their minds, of course, there’s the memory of how the rug was pulled away from them last spring.
“The coach thing to say is, ‘Oh, that’s in the past’. There’s truth to that,” Burke said. “But there’s also truth to the fact that it still stings. These athletes work for an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, and they feel cheated from that. I think it’s OK that they still remember that and have that little fire.”
Burke said it was helpful to have the season revert to the fall, allowing the Bulls to get back on the pitch just four months after last season’s discouraging end. “With everything that happened, to have such a short offseason was a good thing,” he said. “I think it’s still fresh in their minds. All they wanted was an opportunity to prove it on the field, and now we have it.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.