AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) — Motivated by disappointing finishes in recent years, but resolved to live in the moment and not take anything for granted, University at Buffalo’s deep and experienced women’s soccer team is rolling along on one of its most promising season starts in history.
The Bulls (6-1) rank in the upper 90th percentile nationwide, and well above their peers in the Mid-American Conference, at 33rd out of 333 Division I teams in this week’s Ratings Percentage Index. The only time UB has held a higher RPI rating (32) came just before making its lone NCAA tournament appearance in 2014.
Conference play will ultimately decide how successful UB’s season is. And Thursday’s MAC opener against Akron at UB Stadium takes on greater importance with the Bulls raising awareness for Alzheimer’s care and research.
“So much of what we focus on all the time is winning games and the demands of athletics,” UB coach Shawn Burke said. “But we are all people with our own individual lives and stories. And we are here to support each other.
“Alzheimer’s awareness is something that is near and dear to me,” Burke elaborated. “In 2017, we lost my dad to the disease. But it has afflicted all of my uncles on that side as well. I have a personal attachment to it. And I’ve always tried to use the platform we have as best that we can.”
Burke and the Bulls have raised more than $13,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association since 2017, and are striving to add to that total this year. In year’s past, the team has strode together in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
Scheduled to play on the road at Ohio this weekend, UB won’t be able to take part in the walk. But players will sport purple warmup kits and hair ribbons Thursday to support the cause, and they encourage fans to do the same.
“This is my fifth year in the program and my fifth year doing something with the Alzheimer’s walk or game,” said All-MAC goalkeeper Emily Kelly, who earlier this season became the program’s all-time wins leader. “It means a lot to our coach, and we are excited to support him.”
“It means a lot to us,” added Tess Ford, the former Williamsville East star in her fifth season playing for UB. “It’s really nice that we are able to come together and play for that.”
Burke said he is “thankful for the support of the team and their willingness to get behind us. It says a lot about our players that they are here to support each other, and this cause that really hits home for me.”
Kelly credited that cohesion as a crucial factor in UB’s early season success, which includes a streak of four consecutive shutout victories heading into the MAC opener.
“The team chemistry, the way we enjoy being on the field together, and off the field together, cracking jokes,” Kelly said. “It’s just a really nice environment. And that will carry us throughout the season.”
The Bulls also benefit from being a veteran bunch. Ford and Kelly, old teammates with the WNY Flash club, are among seven players who took advantage of NCAA rules allowing an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the 2020-21 seasons. Six of those players have played their full careers at UB.
“It’s been a journey for all of us to go through together,” Ford said. “The six of us are definitely pushing for this final season to be our best. We’re giving it all that we’ve got.”
UB was dejected by the end of the 2021 spring season, when canceled games prevented them from playing in the MAC tournament, and they did not receive an NCAA invitation.
Injuries hurt their chances last fall, when they were seeded fourth for the MACs and lost in the semifinals on a soggy field at Bowling Green.
Being the only MAC team in the top 100 of the RPI after non-conference play won’t matter if the Bulls don’t continue their strong play. Winning the regular season title and hosting the MAC tournament will be paramount to postseason success.
“We know the advantage it can be if teams have to come here and play in November,” Burke said. “That’s the ultimate goal. And we have to treat every game with the utmost importance. We’ve done a great job putting ourselves in this position. But the real work starts not for us.”
Yet it was UB’s lone loss before its current streak of shutout wins — 2-1 at Rutgers on Aug. 28 when the Scarlett Knights were No. 3 in the country — which has boosted the Bulls’ national rank and put a possible at-large bid to the NCAAs in play.
Even after conceding a pair of goals in that loss, Kelly was named MAC defensive player of the week. Ford claimed the same award in each of the next two weeks. Kelly added to the list of accolades Wednesday in being named the MAC’s scholar athlete of the week.
“The biggest key for us has been our depth,” Burke said. “We are regularly playing 20 players with no drop-off when we go to our bench. And with those seven players in their fifth year, experience on top of depth has been a massive reason for our success.”