This week, University at Buffalo head coach Stu Riddle convinced his Bulls that they were destined for the Mid-American Conference final, and his two most dynamic players rose to the occasion in UB's come-from-behind 2-1 overtime win over Western Michigan on Friday at Akron's FirstEnergy Stadium - Cub Cadet Field.
Newly minted conference player of the year Russell Cicerone curled a 35-yard, wind-aided free kick inside Drew Shepherd's near post in the 96th minute, a golden goal that propelled the Bulls to their first MAC final since 2007.
"I was just trying to put [the shot] on target, because it was a nightmare out there with the wind," an exhilarated Cicerone said after the match. "I had [another free kick] in the first half where [Shepherd] kind of looked shaky on it, so Stu just told me to put it on target, and it got us a victory."
It was a scything individual effort from Cicerone against Bowling Green that clinched the Bulls' place in the MAC Tournament, but his game-winner Friday outdid his regular-season heroics.
"Ever since I was young I loved playing in big pressure-situation games," Cicerone admitted. "Another [level] comes out of me."
Out-shot 26-5 through the first 85 minutes and trailing 1-0, UB switched to an offensive-minded 3-4-3 alignment, desperately throwing numbers forward even though a relentless wind -- which approached 40 miles per hour -- essentially served as a 12th defender for the Broncos.
It took a golazo for the Bulls to equalize, as Braden Scales swung a cross into the Western Michigan area that was nodded out just outside of the box. Cramarossa -- pushed to an attacking midfield role with the alignment switch -- ran onto the bouncing ball and sent a screaming left-footed volley into the upper-left corner, leaving Shepherd with no chance.
"I was getting hungry and knew that was my opportunity, and I took it," Cramarossa said. "I just thought, 'Let's have a rip here, we're with the wind, [I] might as well hit one,' and I just ripped it as hard as I could into the top corner."
"To see my best friend on the team to score that kind of a goal, a highlight-reel goal, oh my God, I was so happy for him," added Cicerone on Cramarossa's equalizer. "He deserves it. He's one of the best players on the field every game, he deserves a goal like that."
Truthfully, Riddle was a little surprised that Cramarossa even released the shot at all.
"As soon as I saw that ball drop down, my first instinct was he's gonna take a touch, roll his foot over the ball," Riddle said, alluding to Cramarossa's love for taking players on, "but sure enough he hits it first time, and it's gone like a rocket in the top corner, a fantastic goal from a guy who was excellent tonight."
The Bulls will face the winner of Akron and West Virginia, which is in progress as this article is being written, at 1 p.m. Sunday at the same venue.
Class from Kuta: University at Buffalo goalie Joseph Kuta battled the wind in both directions, as Western Michigan dictated play in both halves. In the first 45, in which Western Michigan out-shot UB 14-2 with six on goal, Kuta was forced to adjust to the wind blowing at his back, making the decision of when to come out and when to stay on his line an adventure.
In the second half, Kuta parried away five more shots, including crucial stops on Connor Furgason's header and Edu Jimenez's drive to the left post. The UB keeper was helpless on the Broncos' goal, a free header by defender Zach Bock that was slammed into his right corner, but he saw his constant activity as a blessing.
"When you're so busy it keeps you warm, obviously on nights when you're standing there the whole game, you're not getting much action and the ball's not coming to you a lot, so when that one big shot does come in, you're not going to be as warm, agile or limber," Kuta explained.
"When you're getting shots like that all game, and you're making the saves, it's a good confidence boost, and every save you make your confidence goes up and up."
Even though Kuta will be without one of his stalwart center backs, second-team All-MAC selection Nick Forrester, for Sunday's final due to yellow card accumulation, he'll welcome relish the opportunity to stand on his head again.
Riddle's revenge: The UB head coach was the first to admit that his Bulls were outplayed on Friday, hence his "team of destiny" comment post-game. He deflected any credit or personal satisfaction to praise for his players, several of whom he initially recruited for Western Michigan before swaying them to Buffalo when he took the Bulls' job before 2013.
"I'm pleased for this group of players, for the guys who trusted me to join me here and believed in the vision, and then the guys who've joined me since then and believed in the vision as well," Riddle reflected. "I'm elated for the university at the program and am excited for Sunday."
Email Ben Tsujimoto at firstname.lastname@example.org