2013-14 Most Improved Teams - Women's Soccer

July 9, 2014

As part of the University of Cincinnati Athletics annual awards, GoBEARCATS.com will recognize three of the department's programs as most improved during the 2013-14 year from July 8-10. Following yesterday's recap of the men's golf season, today we recognize the women's soccer program.

2013 Women's Soccer Team

When Neil Stafford was named head coach of the University of Cincinnati women's soccer program in November 2012, he brought a winning pedigree with him. The native Englishman who grew up in Massachusetts had taken Central Michigan and Assumption College to the Division I and II NCAA Tournaments, respectively, and the expectation was for success to follow with the Bearcats.

The schedule did not do UC any favors, as the Bearcats opened with six of the first seven games on the road, literally playing from coast-to-coast with matches at Miami (Fla.), Nebraska, Dayton, Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara and Xavier sandwiched around a home game with UMass-Lowell that provided Stafford with his first victory at UC.

"It's about players getting rewarded for what they're doing," Stafford said after that first victory. "We were good at times and we were able to take our chances, which we hadn't been able to do."

Things kept getting better for Stafford and the Bearcats as the season went on. After winning just once in the first seven matches, UC capped the season by winning seven of 12 contests, including a 4-4-1 mark in the American Athletic Conference. It started with a win over Kent State before a trip to New England kept the momentum going with victories at Cornell and former BIG EAST Conference foe Providence.

As American Athletic Conference play began, Stafford's club showed they would not back down to anyone. All nine regular season league games and the first round of the conference tournament were decided by one goal. Two of UC's four regular season losses and the conference tournament loss to Rutgers came in overtime. The Bearcats also played 19th-ranked UCF to a 1-1 draw during the stretch.

From day one, Stafford emphasized the team being a family. The adversity faced during the season - from the new expectations that come with a new coaching staff, to the extensive travel schedule, to the hard-fought, one-goal matches - all helped foster that bond Stafford was looking to build.

"We grew as a team," said junior defender Jae Atkinson. "We faced adversity as a team and grew closer. We had to overcome a rough travel schedule, the physical test, it was so much to overcome mentally and physically."

"We all came together," said junior midfielder Megan Cravenor. "We did a lot better on the field, but we also improved as a team academically."

The Turning Point

Cincinnati 1, Cornell 0 (Sept. 20) | Cincinnati 2, Providence 0 (Sept. 22)

Stafford simply calls it the "Weekend in New England." The Bearcats went east to face Cornell and Providence with a record of just 2-6, but swept the matches without conceding a goal. The wins over the Big Red and Friars did more than just provide momentum on the field. Stafford was just as proud of what the team had overcome off the field, as well.

"Not only had we already endured a brutal travel schedule, we had received word of the terrible accident with the UC football players on their way back from Miami (Ohio)," Stafford explained. "The players were mentally and physically exhausted and to have put in two performances like they did was commendable."

It was a pivotal weekend for the team, as it provided momentum into the American slate of games.

"What I remember most was the energy on the bench matched the energy on the field," Stafford said. "In that one weekend, we had the entire team functioning as one. What a way to head into the American Athletic Conference schedule with confidence high and unified."

The Future

Next season, Stafford will rely on his seven-member senior class to help mentor a group of 13 incoming freshman and two transfer additions that will help the program take the next step.

"Our freshman and senior classes will have the biggest impact on our season," Stafford said. "The freshman are going to play a significant part this fall, and to do that the seniors have to lead by example. The seniors are great role models. Our senior class, academically they're fantastic, fitness wise do very well, they're incredibly involved in the UC and Cincinnati community, so there's a lot our incoming freshman can learn from our seniors."

The women's soccer team opens the 2014 campaign on Friday, Aug. 15, when Valparaiso visits Gettler Stadium for a 5:00 p.m. start. Season tickets are available at GoBEARCATS.com/tickets and by calling 1-877-CATS-TIX. Follow the women's soccer team on Twitter @UCWomensSoccer.