1998 Season In Review
A Year Of Firsts For Bearcat Men's Soccer
People outside the program had no reason to expect it.
People within the program knew nothing less would be acceptable.
They did so in a big way, earning a bid to the NCAA men's soccer tournament, receiving its first national ranking, upsetting a team ranked No. 1 in the country and garnering a regional ranking as high as third, all firsts for a program in its 26th year of existence. Cincinnati ended the season with a 12-5-3 record, the most wins for a Cincinnati soccer team since 1989.
Every dynasty built started with a first block, the cornerstone of a strong foundation. That foundation is now firmly in place for the Bearcats thanks to head coach Jeff Cook.
The Bearcats' rebuilding process under Cook started slowly, then gained speed. Now, UC is looked at as one of the top up-and-coming programs in the country.
The Bearcats did all of this behind the third-year coach, who turned around a team that had a record 14 losses the year before he arrived. In three short seasons, Cook has upgraded the talent, the schedule and the expectations surrounding UC soccer.
Balanced offense, a dominating backline on defense and strong goalkeeping brought Cincinnati regional and national recognition and respect.
The Bearcat season started off with a bang, as UC defeated Kentucky, Miami (OH) and Wright State by a combined score of 8-1 to move to 3-0 and win the Kelme Kickoff Classic for the second consecutive season. Sophomore defender Andrew Kean, a Conference USA second team selection, was named the tournament's most valuable defender. Two newcomers, freshman striker Kyle Meador and junior goalkeeper Jake Witkowski, also were outstanding during that stretch. Meador scored six points in his first three matches while Witkowski sported a 0.33 goals against average with two shutouts in his first three collegiate matches after transferring from Maryland.
The Bearcats season hit its first bump in the road when it lost two of its next four games, but amongst the struggles their was the team's greatest triumph. After dropping a match in which it controlled tempo to Michigan State, 2-1 on a late second half score, the Bearcats had to quickly regroup for a battle with undefeated and top-ranked Southern Methodist at a neutral site in St. Louis.
UC came out flat in the first half and SMU scored an early goal, sending the game into halftime with UC trailing 1-0. The second half was a different story, as the Bearcats outshot the Mustangs 7-1 and received a goal five minutes into the half from sophomore Myron Vaughn before classmate Issiah Davis put a ball in the back of the net at the 70-minute mark which proved to be the game-winner. The win earned Witkowski the C-USA Defensive Player of the Week and the program's first win over a ranked opponent since it defeated UNC Charlotte in the 1996 conference tournament.
With another Mustang team on the horizon, the Bearcats could not celebrate long. UC settled for a 1-1 draw on a stormy day with Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo when lightning forced the officials to call the match after only 82 minutes of action. The stretch ended with a Conference USA-opening 3-0 loss to eventual regular season champ, South Florida at home, the worst loss all season for Cincinnati.
With a 4-2-1 record and the worst stretch of the season already behind them, the Bearcats could focus their attention on the rest of the C-USA slate. The Bearcats tuned up for conference play with an exciting 2-0 win at crosstown rival Xavier in a game that featured dozens of scoring opportunities in front of a standing-room only crowd.
Cincinnati continued its strong road play of the early season, defeating Memphis 3-0 and tying No. 16 Saint Louis 1-1 to bring their record away from Meyers Field to 3-1-1. With the 2-0-1 week on the road, Soccer News magazine placed the Bearcats at No. 25 in their national poll, the first-ever ranking in men's soccer for UC.
The ranking was short-lived however, as Cincinnati fell in its first match as a nationally-ranked squad, giving up two goals in the final seven minutes in dropping a 2-1 decision to DePaul.
That loss was arguably the turning point in the season. With every game remaining a virtual must-win to receive a bid to the NCAA tournament, the Bearcats played inspired soccer, going 5-1-1 in its last seven games with wins over No. 12 Butler, 1997 C-USA regular season champion Marquette and regionally-ranked UAB and Ohio State squads. The win over Butler saw Kyle Meador honored as Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week, netting the game-winner while also scoring a goal against Louisville. Andrew Kean was voted the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week, becoming only the fourth non-goalkeeper honored by the conference, in helping lead UC hold Ohio State without a shot on goal in a 1-0 shut out.
The only blemishes on that perfect season were a 2-1 loss on the road at UNC Charlotte and a 1-1 tie with the 49ers in Charlotte three weeks later in the opening round of the Conference USA tournament. UC was eliminated from the tournament on penalty kicks, 4-3, meaning the team would have to wait another eight days before the bids to the tournament came out.
The Bearcats met together to watch the show, and as quickly as the show started, UC was the third team placed in a bracket. Cincinnati would have a rematch with Butler on the road in its first-ever NCAA tournament.
The Bearcats came in optimistic against the Bulldogs after their first meeting, and after a slow first half, UC shook off its nerves and played a brilliant second half, outshooting the home team 11-5 and generating numerous scoring opportunities. While the spurt did not produce a goal, the Bearcats continued to put pressure on Butler before a second yellow card issued to junior Greg Ruebusch with nine minutes remaining in regulation forced UC to play the remainder of regulation, as well as the subsequent overtime, one man short.
Butler capitalized on the advantage, aggressively attacking the goal in overtime before producing a score with less than eight minutes remaining in the second extra 15-minute session. Cincinnati could not produce the equalizer, like it had done so many times before, and all chances evaporated when a frustration foul late sent off senior Brad Ruzzo, forcing the Bearcats down to nine men on the field, giving Butler a 1-0 win.
Despite the disappointment of the loss, the Bearcats took another step in the direction of becoming a consistent NCAA tournament participant. It won on the road (5-3-2 record), against ranked opponents (2-1-1) and in conference (4-3-1, the best winning percentage in its four seasons in Conference USA).
Cincinnati's individual performances were recognized by the conference coaches. Besides the three player of the week nods, five players were honored when the all-conference awards were handed out.
Kyle Meador was named C-USA Freshman of the Year after finishing second on the team in scoring with 14 points. Defense, the Bearcats' forte all season, earned several All-Conference USA accolades. Andrew Kean and Brad Ruzzo, arguably two of the best central defenders in the nation, were each named to the Conference USA second team. The backline allowed one goal or less in 15 matches and helped the offense outshoot its opponents in all but four games this season. Jake Witkowski was excellent in a solo role between the pipes, notching a 0.89 goals against average while collecting six solo shutouts. The second team all-conference goalkeeper was an ironman, playing all 1822 minutes in goal.
Myron Vaughn, a third-team All C-USA selection, led the way after tallying 16 points and three game-winning goals. Eight of the top 12 scorers were freshmen or sophomores. Two of the others are juniors. The offense scored nearly a goal a game more than in 1997 thanks to strong play up top from Issiah Davis and sophomore Ryan Shreck and juniors Johan Cedergren and Greg Ruebusch.
With many goals accomplished, UC remains ready to set standards even higher. With the new success, however, comes expectations.
Luckily for the Bearcats and their coach, the highest expectations will continue to be their own. They have been all along.