It wasn't supposed to end this way for Breanna Knight.
The Buffalo State Bengals' winger returned to the fold following the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance, her sterling career record of 39-13-9 and selection to the All-SUNYAC first team glistening reminders of recent success.
But after an 0-5 start to conference play and a 3-9-1 record overall in 2017, a new reality has sunk in for Knight, fellow senior captain Victoria Colotti and head coach Nick DeMarsh: the Bengals are in full-on rebuilding mode.
"As a leader of this team, it's obviously been hard, coming off 17-1-3 from last year," said Knight after a late-September win over D'Youville. "It's a hard climb, but we're willing to fight."
Nine freshmen - many hailing from the Buffalo area - see regular action for the Bengals, and learning the demands of the college game on the fly, with only two upperclassmen leaders, is a gargantuan task.
"I remember being a freshman, so I've obviously been there," recognized Knight. "It's different coming from a high school and a club feel to a college level of play."
Although Knight and Colotti's influence on the green first-year players won't be truly felt for a few years, their head coach is grateful for their commitment to the program.
"They're excellent at leadership," DeMarsh said of his senior captains. "They're tending to the young players really well, but it's not been easy for them either."
Buffalo State closes its 2017 home slate with a 3 p.m. clash Oct. 13 against Plattsburgh and 1 p.m. Oct. 14 versus Potsdam, with both matches at Coyer Field. The Bengals then close the campaign with road tilts at Oneonta and New Paltz.
Although Buffalo State isn't officially eliminated from playoff contention, it would take a major reversal of fortunes for the program to reach the postseason.
Here are six more things to know about the Bengals:
*COMPENSATING FOR DEPARTURES: Long before the season began, Buffalo State knew replacing Melissa Smith's 37 points and Kristin Seiferth's all-around ability would be near impossible. The reigning SUNYAC offensive and defensive players of the year, respectively, graduated, as did attack-minded starters Tianna Hatch, Jenna Smolinski and Catherine Mammoser.
But when non-seniors Jada Sargeant, Hind Alamari, Alexis Carillo, Kaylee Heschke and Danielle Caraturo chose not to return to the program - "for various reasons," DeMarsh explained - the door swung open for the influx of first-year players.
"This a total rebuild," DeMarsh admitted flatly. "Without those 10 [players], we're starting five or six freshmen per game and we can't play the way we want to, or the way we've done the last couple years, and I find myself teaching lessons I haven't taught in a long time.
"To be fair, as slow as we've started, the girls are responding and we're cutting down on some of the egregious, game-losing mistakes, but we still have a ton to learn and a long way to go."
*SENIOR ADJUSTMENTS: Knight and Colotti have been responsible for more than simply nurturing the horde of underclassmen on and off the field; the duo has had to make some adjustments themselves.
Colotti, a three-time All-SUNYAC midfielder, has shifted to center back for long stretches while Knight, a wide player in the midfield last year, has frequently dropped into a right fullback role.
"They're used to playing a certain way and a certain style, with certain goals and now, I find myself telling them not to do things I've told them to do the last two or three years," said DeMarsh, the reigning SUNYAC Coach of the Year. "We like to send our outside backs into the attack, but when you've got two or three freshmen in your back four, that's not always the best idea."
*MAHONEY WON'T BACK DOWN: There was no way senior striker Lindsay Mahoney could fill the massive void of offensive firepower by herself, but the physical forward has been a handful despite playing often on an island up front.
With exactly half of the Bengals' goals thus far, Mahoney's six markers, three of which have come in SUNYAC play, are especially impressive considering the Port Jefferson, NY, native had tallied just one in her previous three years.
Opportunity certainly is a major reason for Mahoney's stellar production, but her effort on a team with virtually no other offensive options shouldn't be overlooked. Paige Bly, another faithful Bengal who's spent four years with the program, has also blossomed with more responsibility.
*WHAT'S AHEAD: Perhaps the prized recruit of DeMarsh's 2017 class is Kyndal Hetzel, a center midfielder from Hilton, NY, who shows glimpses of star potential. The production hasn't been there in her freshman season - she's scored just once on 28 shots - but she's creative and fearless in the middle of the park.
"I think definitely Kyndal stands out tremendously," praised Knight. "She's in the midfield, which is the heart; she's got great ball-handling skills; she's a worker; she's very tough on the ball and she's willing to fight. It's all about grit - you've got to have that fight in you to make it through these games and to really want to succeed."
Beyond Hetzel, Western New York recruits are plentiful: Alexandra Bone (Williamsville East), Sophia Osmond (West Seneca West), Mia Sugg (Depew), Samantha Brick (Newfane) and Gracie McNamara (Grand Island) have all started matches or seen important minutes, while fellow New York products Ciera Sprague and Melissa Camp are fighting through growing pains along the back line.
All the losing hasn't beaten down Buffalo State too much, at least since we last checked in at the end of September.
"They've got a great spirit and a great attitude; they're really nice kids," DeMarsh explained. "The group itself is a lot of fun, they get along - at halftime they're singing 'Sweet Caroline' like the game is over - in a way that infuriates me, but I don't want to steal that from them because they're young and naive and enjoying it. Under lights, a college game - I'm glad they're having fun but we still have 45 minutes to play."
*NECESSARY PAIN: DeMarsh is more philosophical in his quotes than most coaches, and his following line supports that statement - and it's probably not fun for his young players to hear, even as their first season winds to a close.
"If this team loses a bunch of games and they get disappointed, they'll learn the tough lessons," he said. "I always say, 'If you want to be a champion you have to your heart broken at least once.' This team needs to have its heart broken a few times - we need to be in overtime, make a mistake and lose to learn not to do that next game, next year, the next four years."
*BN SOCCER LIKES: Taylor Carillo had a dream freshman season, seizing the starting goalkeeping role out of the gate, earning conference rookie of the year honors and placing on the All-SUNYAC team. Her 13 shutouts were a school record.
The 5'2 keeper has been under fire in 2017, however. Forced to share time in the early going with senior Nicole Torres, Carillo regained the starting gig over the last three conference games - all one-goal losses. The Pine Bush, NY, native is better than her 2017 statistics indicate, and her future remains bright as the program improves as a whole.