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Hall, Bulls not content with just an NCAA appearance

A moment in the second half of UB’s 1-0 win over Syracuse epitomized Jackie Hall’s impact on the University at Buffalo Bulls women's soccer team.

On a counter attack down the left side, an SU forward barreled past UB fullback Angel Hart, leaving Bulls keeper Laura Dougall in a one-on-one situation. The reigning Mid-American Conference champions had absorbed Syracuse’s attacking forays for 75 minutes, but this seemed to be the moment when the favored Atlantic Coast Conference team would claim their authority.

At a dead sprint from 20 yards away, a blonde streak whirred through the 18-yard box, slid smoothly into the striker’s path to win the ball, a powerful, clean dispossession to thwart a golden chance. The necessary timing of the tackle -- a split second later, and the Orange would have likely earned a penalty kick -- and the sheer force behind the simultaneous impact of Hall, the SU forward and the ball left fans speechless.

Hall's senior leadership is vital to a Bulls team that seeks its second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The senior leadership of Jackie Hall, No. 5 in white, is vital to a Bulls team that seeks its second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

These moments are remarkably common for Hall, a fifth-year senior didn’t exactly waltz onto the 2015 Hermann Watch list, a prestigious pool from which the best women’s college soccer player is chosen. The New Brunswick native started at Cuyahoga Community College for a season, was recruited to UB, then coached by Michael Thomas, as a midfielder, saw her 2012 season end after two matches due to injury, and never truly hit her stride until her 2014 -- when head coach Shawn Burke was hired and shifted her to center back.

Why would someone so comfortable as a midfielder be moved into a defensive role, anyway?

“Her skillset,” Burke responded, simply. “I played the position of center back [where he was conference defender of the year for Mercyhurst in 2002], so maybe I thought she had a lot of the things that go, but she’s very good with the game in front of her, and at the end of the day, if I’m a forward, the last thing I want to be doing is going against Jackie Hall for 90 minutes, because I know I’m going to get beat up.”

Strong communication and physicality are two musts for a center back, and Hall’s gifts fit snugly.

“When I was younger I was always playing two years up, and my coach would throw me into a boys’ game,” Hall explained after the dramatic 2OT win over Syracuse. “I was really small when I was younger, so I was playing against bigger, tougher people. From then, I realize I either had to suck it up and be more aggressive or I wouldn’t do very well. I’ve become a very hard-nosed player.”

Hall's ability to win headers on set pieces allows her to contribute offensively as well. (Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com)

Hall's ability to win headers on set pieces allows her to contribute offensively as well. (Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com)

The program’s leap from 6-9-3 in 2013 to 16 wins and an NCAA Tournament berth -- due in part to a coaching change from Michael Thomas to Burke -- is well-documented, but in Hall’s final year of eligibility, the Bulls have their sights set on advancing to the second round of the NCAAs.

Thus far, the path has been rocky -- a season-opening 3-1 loss to St. Joseph’s preceded confident shutout wins over Drexel and Canisius, but a 2-0 loss to Big 4 rival St. Bonaventure revealed how vulnerable the Bulls are without Hall in the lineup. Battling lingering injuries, Hall sat for the match’s first 50 minutes -- long enough for the Bonnies to strike on either side of halftime. The captain played the final 40, keeping St. Bonaventure off the score sheet, but the Bulls couldn’t rally.

In other words, keeping Hall healthy will be one of Burke and his staff’s biggest challenges this year.

“[Hall] is a fifth-year senior, and her body is starting to break down a little bit,” Burke explained. “She only knows how to play one way, 100 miles an hour. So she needs a little bit of management, but she’s the heart and soul of everything we do. A lot of our success is going to be based on her. She’s a winner through and through.”

In other words, slowing Hall down is easier said than done, largely because she’s almost maniacally self-driven.

“We don’t have to motivate that kid at all -- there’s a reason she’s successful,” the second-year head coach said. “And it shows every single game. She’ll do whatever it takes to win, and she’ll push her teammates to do whatever it takes to win. We don’t have to worry about motivating Jackie Hall. Hopefully she stays healthy, but that kid has an absolute will greater than any other force, and usually it wins out.”

The most impressive display from Hall and the Bulls' defense was undoubtedly taking No. 4-ranked West Virginia to overtime on the road, as UB withstood an onslaught of 41 shots -- just 11 of which the Mountaineers placed on target -- before goalie Laura Dougall was unfortunate to see a shot carom into her net off her teammate.

While bunkering down defensively isn't the most enthralling style to play or watch, it's necessary against a side like West Virginia, and Hall's leadership and Dougall's series of acrobatic stops kept UB level for 97 minutes.

"The organization, discipline and overall desire [of the Bulls] took one of the best teams in the country into overtime," Burke told BuffaloBulls.com after the match. "We frustrated [West Virginia] for much of the contest and it's hard to keep a team of that caliber off the scoresheet."

Even if UB operates with a defense-first mindset, goals need to come from somewhere.

Losing leading scorer Katie Roberts to graduation has created a void in the attack, as a slew of players is creating chances but not converting. Reserve Dana Lytle’s game-winner against Syracuse allowed the Bulls to exhale and forget the opportunities that talented sophomore Julia Benati left on the table, but the problem lingers.

Replacing Roberts' 12 goals is no simple feat, and the 2015 results point to a collective effort. Former Williamsville South High School star Carissima Cutrona is a dervish with the ball at her feet, but she's scored just two goals on 35 shots, a ratio that needs to improve if the Bulls are to surpass last year's accomplishments.

Former Williamsville South star Carissima Cutrona (6), now a member of the UB Bulls, is pictured breaking past Hamburg defenders in the 2013 Section VI Tournament at Amherst High School. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

Former Williamsville South star Carissima Cutrona (6), now a member of the UB Bulls, is pictured breaking past Hamburg defenders in the 2013 Section VI Tournament at Amherst High School. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

Benati, the team's leading scorer with four goals -- including two consecutive game-winners -- has a knack for finding the ball in the offensive third, while Canadian freshman Rebecca Bramble has forced her way up the depth chart with strong performances at forward. These are encouraging signs. Kassidy Kidd, the elder stateswoman of the group, is versatile in the midfield and has started over 50 games for the Bulls.

Burke admits that he’d be more worried if his team wasn’t creating chances, and he trusts that this scoring drought is only temporary. Eleven goals in as many games doesn't point to an offensive juggernaut, as the Bulls had notched 16 in their first 11 games last year.

“When we’re good, we’re very good," Hall insisted, "but we just need to focus in and make sure we’re hitting our targets.”

Jackie Hall, middle, scored the game-winning goal against Western Michigan in the MAC Championship to send the Bulls to the NCAA Tournament. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

Jackie Hall, middle, scored the game-winning goal against Western Michigan in the MAC Championship to send the Bulls to the NCAA Tournament. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

Most important to Burke, and perhaps the strongest ingredient to UB’s shocking turnaround and 2014 postseason success, is accountability within the squad, a trait that breeds success.

“We have to hold everybody accountable -- from the staff to all the players, from who gets the most interviews to the kid who doesn’t get a whole lot of minutes," Burke explained. "It all matters. It takes place in training, it takes place in film and the details. If we hold ourselves accountable, we have enough talent to compete with anybody.”

The Bulls have split their four Mid-American Conference games so far -- wins against Kent State and Eastern Michigan, and losses to Ohio and Bowling Green -- and face the final match of a three-game road trip on Friday before returning to UB Stadium Oct. 11. As a whole, this year doesn't look particularly strong for the MAC; as of Oct. 5, only Ball State (no. 81) ranked in the RPI Top 100, and six of the 12 teams are clustered between nos. 157 and 221.

The Mid-American Conference women's soccer standings as of Oct. 5.

The Mid-American Conference women's soccer standings as of Oct. 5.

In other words, even though UB has the bulls-eye on their backs after winning the conference title in 2014, the MAC is packed with parity this year. The Bulls were the coaches' preseason pick to win the Mid-American Conference East Division, but the Redhawks were predicted to be this year's tournament champs.

“[2014's story was] great for the program, but this group -- this is their own team, a new team," Burke explained. "As soon as they come together, they can make their own history. The hard part is we have to deal with questions from last year, and that comes with success.”

The Bulls' goal for 2015, then, is simple.

"Win an NCAA game -- that’s our goal," Hall said. "We’ve made it there, we’ve made it to the tournament, now we want to make it to the next step in the tournament. Baby steps every year.”

Why they'll win the MAC again: Don't underestimate the value of last season's championship run. Simply reaching the NCAA Tournament and excelling under pressure toughens a team, and it's up to the returnees to ensure that the newcomers grasp the mental fortitude, accountability and will necessary to repeat.

Why they'll fall short of their goal: Goal-scoring. It's hard to have confidence in a team that lacks a pure goal-scorer, and Roberts' graduation has already been felt. Unless a player like Bramble or Cutrona breaks out soon, the Bulls will have to count on grinding out low-scoring, one-goal victories. The defense is experienced and formidable, but it's unreasonable to expect a clean sheet every match.

Unheralded players to watch: It's easy to be overshadowed when Jackie Hall shares your position, and that's exactly Andrea Niper's situation. She's taller than her center-back partner and nearly as physical, but probably doesn't get the credit she's due. It's fun to watch the development of true freshman outside back Brianna Shingary -- even though she lists Tom Brady among her favorite athletes -- as Burke had the confidence to insert her as a starter in her first regular season match.

Must-see matches: The Bulls play their final three MAC home games in the span of a week -- at noon on Oct. 11 vs. Northern Illinois, 5 p.m. Oct. 16 vs. Toledo and at noon Oct. 18 vs. Central Michigan.

Email Ben Tsujimoto at btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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