Nov. 22, 2011
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. - It's been almost two full days since UCF's men's soccer team lost in heartbreaking fashion to rival USF in second-round play of the NCAA Tournament and understandably the pain is still raw and sensitive.
UCF head coach Bryan Cunningham can still envision the tears streaming from the eyes of his players following Sunday's 2-1 overtime defeat in Tampa. He can still feel the long embraces of a team that fully expected to make a long run in the NCAAs this season and isn't ready yet to let go of this season.
But Cunningham knows that, in time, he be able to cherish what his Knights accomplished and revel in the culture of winning that has been established within the program.
``I feel like I haven't really embraced (being eliminated) yet. It's a tough way to lose when the ball goes into the net and your season just comes to a halt,'' Cunningham admitted. ``It's emotional when you pour so much into a team and a season. As I told the players in the locker room afterward, `I love them all like my family.' You spend so much time with those kids and when they give you the effort that this group did day in and day out in practice, it's tough to take. It'll probably take a few more days to let it sink in and look back on the accomplishments of our season. The players should be so proud of what we accomplished and we have to look forward to what's still to come from this group.''
UCF (12-6-3) had to stomach losing despite dominating play most of the night against the seventh-seeded Bulls. UCF had a 12-5 lead in shot attempts and a 7-2 edge in corner kicks, but lost in the 95th minute of the night on a South Florida goal. Cunningham was proud how his team showed great resolve against one of the nation's best teams and pro-USF crowd of 3,029, and only wishes the final outcome could have been different.
What the loss didn't erase, however, was UCF's record of getting to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year and to the semifinals of the Conference USA tourney for a third time in a row.
``That was probably the only time all year where we played really well and lost. To beat them in every category was massive, but where it mattered most - in the scoreline - we didn't do it there. But I couldn't have been prouder of a group of guys,'' Cunningham said. ``To come back after the year we had last year with all of the expectations in the world, to get up to get up to No. 5 in the country, stay in the Top 25 all year, to make it to the C-USA semifinals again and back to the NCAAs second round, that was a massive achievement.''
UCF loses five seniors - Kevan George, Cameron Cooksey, Warren Creavalle, Chris Feigenbaum and Spencer Scott - but Cunningham feels the Knights could be even better next season because of the next wave of talent on the way. Regardless, Cunningham said this senior class will never be forgotten because of the legacy it has left behind with the program.
``They are fantastic kids and we'll miss them dearly. From their freshman year to senior year they played in three Conference USA semifinals - one of only two schools to do that in that span. And they played in the second round of the NCAA Tournament twice, so I couldn't be happier for the kids,'' said Cunningham, the architect of UCF's soccer revival. ``What they have done for us on and off the field has been magnificent. And what they have done now is they have created a culture of winning and an expectation that the younger group inherits and has to maintain.''
Andrew Quintana, Steven Lamberta and A.J. Nelson will be looked to for leadership and production next season. Also, the Knights are excited about the return of redshirt freshman goal keeper Sebastian Evers, who played spectacularly in NCAA games against Florida Gulf Coast and USF.
``We didn't just take a victory lap from last season; we were able to come back this year and do really well again,'' said Cunningham, who just completed his fourth season at UCF. ``The players now know what to expect again next year. When we recruit kids now they know they are coming here to compete for championships, both on a conference level and a national level.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.