When you have injuries to your defense and a brutal September schedule, what's a men's soccer team to do?
No worries for the University at Buffalo. The Bulls put in their reserves and haven't missed a beat, notching six straight shutouts and a ranking in one of the toughest regional polls.
Playing 12 games in September -- a high clip for soccer -- the Bulls are 9-2-1 overall and 5-0-1 in their last six games.
Their stretch of 566 minutes of play without allowing a goal helped launch them to a tie for No. 9 in the Great Lakes Region of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll. The Bulls, tied with Michigan and Loyola (Ill.), will host a Mid-American Conference game with Western Michigan at 7 p.m. Friday in UB Stadium.
"I'm glad that we broke into it," UB coach John Astudillo said. "It's a credit to the kids more than anything. And one of the most important things in my mind is the two teams we're pursuing [in the MAC] are still in there ahead of us. Northern Illinois is about two steps ahead of us and Akron is about four steps ahead of us. Keeping that in focus is all I'm worried about right now."
And the focus has been on some pretty impressive defense. Junior Bobby Shuttleworth (Nichols) has been solid as the team's goalkeeper and defender Dan Gwyther has been the anchor in the backfield.
"In the beginning of the year, we were giving up soft goals, goals that we could have prevented," Astudillo said. "Now our midfielders are working hard. Our forwards are working hard on defense and our backs are just exemplary. Dan Gwyther is brilliant back there. He was directing the four backs before but in the last three to five games, three of our four starters were out with injury. So we've been playing with three brand new players back there and that's really a credit of how hard we work in training.
"Starters work hard because obviously they know they have to play but I think the hardest thing in sports really is to train to be ready rather than to train to play. And you really have to take your hats off to kids that work their buns off and don't get to play and all of a sudden when it's their turn to play, there they are."
Shuttleworth has been solid in net with a 0.50 goals-against average. He's given up just six goals in more than 1,082 minutes of play in 12 games.
Gwyther has been the vocal leader as defender, helping to organize the backfield. He's also gotten in on the scoring, leading the team with three game-winning goals.
The two have helped to shore up the back end even as different faces rotate into the lineup.
"Clearly with all the injuries and a lot of people stepping up I think that shows the level that we're at right now," Shuttleworth said. "Even people who are coming off the bench can step in and not even lose a beat and everything keeps ticking on the field."
"I think of the four years I've been here this is the most deep the squad has ever been," Gwyther said.
The depth will likely be tested as the Bulls move deeper into the MAC season. After Western Michigan comes two home games, a non-conference encounter with Niagara and Northern Illinois on Oct. 10, before the Bulls travel to defending champion and nationally ranked Akron on Oct. 18.
The goal is to be in position for the MAC tournament in November and another crack at Akron.
"We just need to continue to stay humble," Gwyther said.