Sports

Conference play looms, O’Connor uncertain of team’s chances

Seamus O’Connor remains unsure of his team’s chances in The American.

Last year, the women’s soccer team exited its conference schedule with one win.

This season, despite a strong start in its non-conference schedule, the Owls will soon gain a stronger understanding of how they stack up against their American Athletic Conference rivals.

“Who knows, this year we could struggle again,” coach Seamus O’Connor said. “I’m just interested to see where we’re at, how close we are to some of these teams.”

O’Connor said he expected struggles last year. Going from the Atlantic 10 Conference to The American requires an adjustment, and O’Connor said he felt his team just didn’t quite have the players to make the leap to that level of competition.

The Owls went 5-3-1 in non-conference play last season.

In 2013, the Owls won their first conference game against Houston, but dropped their next eight and finished their season with a loss to Southern Methodist in the conference tournament.

O’Connor said he feels that while his team is taking a step in the right direction this year, he is not certain now is the time the Owls will be able to take the step up and compete in The American.

“The players have done a better job getting themselves prepared for it, but it takes recruiting,” O’Connor said. “It takes some time to make that change over to compete at this level.”

Although the coach is unsure how the results will end up, Temple will head into conference play having won seven of its first nine contests.

Transfers junior midfielder Gina DiTaranto and sophomore forward Kayla Cunningham have helped add a scoring punch to an offense that struggled to find the back of the net last year.

Defensively, the Owls have been challenged in only a few of their contests so far this season, allowing goals in just two games.

When the defense has allowed opponents to get through, junior goalkeeper Shauni Kerkhoff has been impressive in net. Kerkhoff, who has registered a 84.8 save percentage through the early going, is aware her job is about to get a lot more difficult.

“The biggest adjustment will be the number of shots that I will face and the quality of said shots,” said Kerkhoff. “We are playing against girls who can blast shot after shot on frame.”

The difficulties of last year opened eyes for the team. O’Connor said he felt his squad was naïve in its approach heading into the new conference.

This season, O’Connor feels his players have made strides from where they were a year ago.

“They took the beatings last year in conference and we just identified the weaknesses,” O’Connor said. “The players did a very good job of just saying I need to get better at this, this and this and they did it.”

O’Connor said that the other teams in the conference improved themselves as well. In The American’s preseason coaches’ poll, the Owls found themselves ranked ninth out of the 10 teams.

In a conference with programs like Central Florida, which has been nationally ranked on and off this season, the Owls will be tested. Senior outside back Alyssa Kirk says the team is embracing the challenge.

“We expect excellent competition and we are going to be ready for it,” Kirk said. We definitely know it’s a rough road ahead, but I do feel we are prepared for it and expect success.”

The Owls finished 1-8 in The American last season, a mark that could have looked different had the Owls been on the other side of three one-goal losses.

Kirk said she feels these are the types of contests the Owls are better equipped to win this year.

“The games that we lost by one goal last year are going to be the games we are able to win now,” Kirk said. “Last year we let teams intimidate us but now we are more experienced and confident. It’s the first time I feel like we can be serious about having a successful conference run and then winning our first playoff game.”

Cunningham said O’Connor and his staff are making sure that the team is maintaining a game to game approach as they head into conference play.

Regardless of what happens to the Owls as they kick off their conference schedule against Cincinnati on Thursday, the team’s hot start has put the team in a good position.

Cunningham feels her team is starting to play their best soccer at the right time.

“I think the biggest difference for the team going from the non-conference to the conference schedule is us really starting to peak,” Cunningham said. “I know from the beginning coach O’Connor said that by conference play he wants us to start peaking as a team and individuals so I think that’s starting to show for us.”

Owen McCue can be reached at owen.mccue@temple.edu

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