Shawn Burke didn’t quite see this coming. Who could have imagined that the UB women’s soccer team, stocked with veterans, would allow the fewest goals in the country, win the MAC championship, and have a freshman, Ellie Simmons, chosen as the conference’s defender of the year? 

“Listen, we knew she was going to play,” UB’s coach said before practice on Thursday. “We knew she was going to contribute. But I’d be lying to say I knew she was going to step into the back line and have the impact she was going to have as a freshman. But it’s been tremendous.”

For one thing, Simmons wasn’t even expected to play on the back line. Burke saw her as a midfielder. But a couple of weeks into the season, he gave her a run at defender and the 18-year-old from Arlington, Virginia never looked back. 

Simmons became a star on a Bulls team that went unbeaten in the MAC and won the conference tournament at home last weekend. The Bulls, who haven’t lost since late August at Rutgers, play at Pitt on Saturday night as a live and confident underdog in the NCAA tourney.

You can’t count this UB team out for a simple reason: They’re nearly impossible to score against. Led by Emily Kelly, the top goalie in the league, they’ve recorded 14 shutouts and are tied with Georgetown for the lowest goals-against average in the nation at 0.40 per game. 

Simmons has been a big part of the defense and the attack. She’s fifth on the team in points with 11 and second in assists with seven. She had one of the biggest set-ups of the season in the MAC semifinal last week against Miami. With the game tied, 0-0, in the 77th minute, she sent a gorgeous free kick into the box, where Hannah Callaghan headed it in for the winner.

That goal relieved a lot of pressure for the favored Bulls, who came back on Sunday and beat Ball State, 2-0, for their long-awaited MAC title, holding the Cardinals without a shot on goal for the entire first half. 

Simmons played all but one minute of that game. She was fourth on the team in minutes, the only Bull among the top seven in playing time who wasn’t a fifth-year player or a natural senior. That tells you why the other league coaches would have honored her as the top defender.

“I believe that this was a team award,” Simmons said. “I definitely would not have been able to receive this without everyone around me. So yes, I was a little surprised.”

It’s no surprise to hear that sort of self-effacing talk from a UB player. When Kelly won the MAC goalie of the year award, she said her defense was totally responsible. It reflects the selfless, winning culture of a team on which fifth-year players and wide-eyed freshmen are treated equally.

“One of our phrases is ‘We are one’, meaning we are all one team,” Simmons said. “We all work together as one unit. We’re not one person, we’re a whole team.”

Simmons said the close-knit team culture was one of the reasons she decided to come to Buffalo (her father was pushing for Utah). On some teams, there might be resentment toward a raw rookie coming to contend for playing time against seniors. But she said the upperclassmen were especially kind to her.

“I loved the school,” said Simmons, an exercise science major. “I loved the coaches, the team, the culture and environment, just the feeling that I got when I came here.

“In the preseason, the upperclassmen were welcoming me into the team and into the environment. Nobody ever made me feel like a freshman. It was like I was part of the team. It was really fun.”

There was no razzing, no joking about being the team baby. Simmons quickly established herself as the team’s most effective player on free kicks, making her an indispensable resource. UB was desperate to win a MAC title after crushing setbacks the last two years. All that mattered was winning.

“I’ve got 22, 23-year-olds who have a little more life experience,” said Burke who has won two MAC titles in nine years as head coach. “Listen, they had one goal in their mind, winning a championship. If a freshman was going to help them do that, they were going to do everything they could to lift them up.

Four freshmen played regular minutes for the Bulls: Simmons, Katie Krohn, Marissa Foster and Lewiston-Porter grad Sarah Woods. Burke said they all fit in from the minute they set foot on UB Stadium’s artificial turf. 

“They haven’t been intimidated,” Burke said. “They haven’t been passive. I wouldn’t say it’s arrogance; they have a confidence to their game and that comes from their youth background. It helps to have a very welcoming team. They feel comfortable. We have the culture where players can excel.”

That will help when they play Saturday night at Pittsburgh. The Panthers are the No. 4 seed in the region. But it’s their first time in the NCAA tourney. They’re ranked 19th and have the pressure of a favorite. UB will be loose after being in a similar situation at home for two games in last week’s MAC championship. 

“It’s a good matchup for us,” Burke said. “Not to take Pitt lightly. They’re hosting and a high seed for a reason. But they play on turf, it’s close travel for us. A lot of time, you worry with Power 5’s that they’re going to out-athlete you. We played Rutgers and their slowest kid is probably our fastest. 

“They have good players, but I don’t think they out-athlete us,” he said. “And that’s what you want. You want a chance, and it should be a really good game. Our players have been on this run for a reason. I think they’ve got a chance to make some noise here.”

Simmons said the Bulls have believed all season that they have something special. Kelly called it the ‘it’ factor. Can a team possibly feel like an underdog when it hasn’t lost a game in two-and-a-half months?

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” Simmons said. “I think we’re all pretty confident that we can hang with these people.”

You can always point to UB sports history. The biggest win in the school’s NCAA Tournament history was in 2018, when the men’s basketball team upset Arizona — which was a No. 4 seed.

“Exactly!” Simmons said. “Anything can happen. It’s sports.”

***

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.

***

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.