The last time the University at Buffalo women's soccer team won its first Mid-American Conference game came in 2014, when just two of the Bulls current players were part of the squad.
Shawn Burke's team reversed recent history with a well-rounded 2-0 win over the Western Michigan Broncos at UB Stadium on Friday. Captains Carissima Cutrona and Julia Benati potted the goals, while goalkeeper Laura Dougall kept her third clean sheet of the season and set the program mark for wins at her position, with 35.
"This is what we haven't been able to do - find ways to win games," said Burke after his Bulls improved their overall record to 3-4-1. "That was a tough game - we were put under tremendous pressure, and to get the goal late, to find a way to counter against them, to deal and absorb all that pressure ... we learned how to win tonight."
"This win is so important for us, in our first MAC game to start really positive for the team," added Cutrona, a Williamsville South High School grad. "It's going to carry over to Sunday and for the rest of the season."
*1-0, UB, 44': After the Bulls dominated the first 25 minutes in possession and chances, Western adjusted well on the fly and threatened regularly in the next 20. With UB looking likely to concede before the break, two substitute attackers flipped the script.
Freshman Kaitlyn Walsh buzzed down the right side, forced a turnover from a Bronco fullback and slid a cross toward Villalta, who kept the ball long enough for Carissima Cutrona to join the fray. The junior captain placed her shot from 15 yards to the goalkeeper's right into the side netting.
"When we scored in the first half, it was completely against the run of play," Burke admitted. "We were hanging on to get to halftime at that point."
"I give the credit to Kaitlyn and Rachel there, they did all the hard work for that one," explained Cutrona. "I saw the ball bounce out and I wanted to get a touch on it before their defender did, and put it on net, and thankfully it went in."
It was Cutrona's fourth goal of the season and 17th in her career for the Bulls; she scored 11 for the Western New York Flash in United Women's Soccer (UWS) this past summer.
*2-0, UB, 87': UB freshman Marcy Barberic anticipated a tackle well in midfield, then alertly played the ball wide to classmate Gianna Yurchak. The No. 9 lofted a service into the Western box - sailing over a center back - to the opposite side where Julia Benati had followed the play. With time to settle and lift her head, Benati sent a lob over Stephanie Heber and under the crossbar to ice the game.
"Jules showed her class on that last one to really kill it," Burke added. It was the third goal of the season for Benati, who lost most of 2016 to injury.
*BACK FOUR THRIVES: The Bulls did not coast to victory in this one. Western's balanced attack and speed going forward meant intense periods of defending for the UB midfield and backs. While the Broncos struggled to put their shots on frame, the Bulls snuffed out their own share of chances.
"Western caused a lot of problems for us: they space well, they keep it, they're obviously composed on the ball," Burke commented. "It did fall on the back line today to be disciplined. [WMU] has runners all over the place, and our girls stayed to their channels - they weren't just chasing."
It's a poorly kept secret that UB center back Gurjeena Jandu is one of the MAC's best defenders; the sophomore is fierce in the tackle, a supreme ball-winner and fast enough to not be a liability against speedy strikers. But a back line is more than just its best player, and converted fullback Adrianna VanCuyck excelled at her responsibilities in a new central role next to the star.
Stomping out attacks with crucial, well-positioned tackles in the 58th and 80th minutes, VanCuyck showed an awareness and timing that typically takes time to refine at the spot. Some of her success comes from her partnership with Jandu, but personal growth plays a role, too.
"It's helpful to be able to play next to [Jandu] because we've played together for a year now, and we really work well together and know how the other person is going to play," VanCuyck said. "I know if I go for a ball she's always going to be there to cover for me, and then the same for her."
In terms of expectations, VanCuyck's biggest test has been the communication and organization demanded from her, especially with Meghan Simmons, Rebecca Bramble and Barberic all spending regular minutes at outside back.
"I think now I have to control the team a lot more and communicate with everybody, and be more of a leader back there," VanCuyck noted. "It's been a big transition, but I think I'm getting more confidence and learning how to communicate more."
*UNSUNG HERO: Walsh is proving to be an impact sub for Burke, as the Chenango Forks, NY native entered in the 30th minute and changed the game with her peskiness and pace, eventually leading to the opening marker. The newcomer had a glorious breakaway chance to put UB up two early in the second half, but her final touch was too long and cleared away by Heber.
Mairead Martin gave the Bulls valuable minutes at the holding midfield spot in the second half, too.
*STEP FORWARD: The non-conference results were a disappointment for the Bulls, who won just two of their seven contests. A 2-1 upset loss to Canisius was a major blemish that could certainly be rock-bottom for a proud UB team, which Burke credits for not hanging their heads.
"To their credit, they've never been short on confidence," Burke said of his team. "As much as things haven't been going our way, they've been playing tremendous, but the nice thing about tonight is we found a way to grind out a game. That's been our biggest question mark as a group, so you have to give the girls a lot of credit for finding how to do that."
*FINAL WORD: "If you look on paper it's definitely been a rough year for us, we've had ups and downs, but most importantly, we've learned a lot through non-conference play, so I think we were just really confident going into conference," Cutrona explained. "We know how good of a soccer team we can be, so I think if we continue to bring it every single game like we did tonight, it's going to be a very special year."
*UB: Laura Dougall, Rebecca Bramble, Adrianna VanCuyck, Gurjeena Jandu, Meghan Simmons; Marcy Barberic; Julia Benati, Moira Petrie, Carissima Cutrona, Kara Daly; Gianna Yurchak. Subs used: Kaitlyn Walsh, Rachel Villalta, Mairead Martin, Lena Lucas, Carley Zoccali.
*Western Michigan: Stephanie Heber, Alyssa Smith, Maria Jaramillo, Paige Dobbs, Tiffany Buckler; Kendall Juhnke; Grace Labadie, Emma Kahn, Colleen McKay, Roselyn Kyeame; Alex Ruffer. Subs used: Hannah Kahn, Victoria McCartney, Lydia Bajema, Savannah Bosworth, Ashleigh Garcia, Rachel Royer.