BearcatsTV host Scott Waldrop covers all the olympic sports for the University of Cincinnati in a weekly report
Built upon a culture of excellence, the University of Cincinnati women’s soccer program has enjoyed a rebirth in the first three years of Neil Stafford’s tenure in the Queen City. When the 2016 season begins, Stafford’s Bearcats will look to continue to build as they enter the campaign as the defending American Athletic Conference champions, the program’s first crown since 2002.
Stafford, who holds a career record of 133-96-27 in 13 years of collegiate coaching, has guided his Bearcats to improved records each of his first three campaigns and carries a 31-25-8 mark into his fourth season at the helm. Those 31 wins stand as the most by a coach in his/her first three years with the program, a program that has been competing for 36 years (1980).
The 2015 squad posted a 13-6-5 overall record and went 5-3-1 in American Athletic Conference play, seeding the team fourth in the conference tournament. From there, Stafford’s side did what it had done throughout the season: battle. Following a comfortable 2-0 defeat of fifth-seeded Memphis, UC found itself down by the same count at halftime in the semifinals to top-seeded and 10th ranked UConn. Two goals with under 11 minutes remaining in the match forced overtime before UC pulled off the come-from-behind upset.
From there, the ‘Cardiac Cats’ played second-seeded and 18th-ranked USF to a 1-1 draw before winning the title in a penalty shootout to secure the seventh conference crown in program history. The victory also sent the Bearcats to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002 and the seventh time ever.
All that success stemmed from his team’s desire to overcome a 2-2-1 opening to the season. Following that opening five-match stretch, the Bearcats went undefeated over their next nine contests (6-0-3) to put them on a path toward an eventual crown. The third win in the streak was a 3-2 decision at Duquesne, which was the 125th career win of Stafford’s career. When it was all said and done, UC improved its final RPI standing by 93 places over its 2014 finish, standing 39th at the end of the year (132nd in 2014).
Academically, the Bearcats were among the best on campus once again as the program finished with a cumulative GPA of 3.512 for the 2015-16 academic year, which ranked fifth overall among UC programs. Their final GPA also was an improvement from the year before when Stafford’s squad held a cumulative GPA of 3.502 for the 2014-15 year.
In his second year with the Bearcats, UC posted a 10-8-2 mark, which marked only the second double-digit victory total the program had recorded since 2002. To get to that win total, UC was fierce at home, tallying a 7-7-1 record at Gettler Stadium. That win total overall was another improvement for the Bearcats as they ended 2014 with an 8-11-1 mark.
Signature wins have become a staple under Stafford with 2015 being no different. UC handed visiting and 18th-ranked USF a 1-0 setback in conference action before its upset of UConn in the tournament. In 2014, the Bearcats posted wins over NCAA Tournament qualifiers USF and UConn and a draw with two-time conference champion UCF.
Prior to taking the reigns of the Bearcats program, Stafford spent two years at the helm of the Central Michigan program (2011-12) following two years as an assistant coach (2009-10). As head coach, Stafford’s Chippewas went 30-10-4 and advanced to the semifinals of the Mid-America Conference Tournament in 2011 before reaching the finals in 2012. In 2012, following a 15-7-1 record, CMU earned an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament, a first for a member of the MAC. Prior to taking over head coaching duties, the Chips won back-to-back MAC titles and earned a pair of NCAA berths.
Stafford got his start in the collegiate coaching ranks in 2000 as the associate head coach for the men’s and women’s programs at Assumption College. That was followed in 2001 when he spent eight seasons as the head women’s soccer coach at Assumption College, where he is the program’s all-time winningest coach with a 72-61-15 ledger.
At Assumption, he was named the Northeast-10 Conference Coach of the Year in 2004 after guiding the Greyhounds to their first NE-10 conference final, NCAA Division II Tournament berth and NCAA Regional final appearance. Assumption finished the season 14th in the nation with a final record of 15-6. Stafford’s squad followed up the breakthrough 2004 campaign with another NCAA Tournament appearance in 2005, finishing 15-4-4 and returning to the NCAA Regional finals, climbing as high as third in the nation.
A graduate of Marlborough (Mass.) High School, Stafford lettered in soccer, hockey and tennis. He also prepped a year at Worcester Academy where he was named team MVP.
Stafford attended Norwich University, competing in both tennis and soccer, and was named an all-region NESCAC player before transferring to Southern New Hampshire. He led the Penmen to a two-year record of 29-4-4 and then joined the coaching staff as an assistant coach for three years (1995-97), during which the team advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight. He also played with the Boston Storm (USL).
Stafford was named the Director of Operations with the Boston Renegades (W-League) in 1998 and was also Director of the W-1 National Championships in Boston that year. He later served as the head assistant coach of the Boston Renegades under Peter Bradley (1999-2001). The Renegades advanced to three national final fours and won two W-League National Championships in his final three years. His U-18 Renegades were the national runner-ups in 2000.
During his time in Boston, Stafford worked with several high-level players, including Shannon Boxx and Angela Hucles, both of whom have been rostered on the U.S. Women’s National Team. He also worked with Erica Iverson, the W-USA Defender of the Year, and internationals Nathalie Geeris (Netherlands, 1988-92) and Pauliina Miettenen (Finland, 1992-04).
Stafford also worked with Seacoast United Soccer Club in Hampton, N.H., as the Girls Coaching Director (2002-05). In the summer of 2004, Stafford’s Seacoast United Girls 15 squad won its first Super Y-League National Championship.
Stafford earned his bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire in 1996 while majoring in sociology.
2x NCAA Division II Regional Tournament participant