After 2013 conference struggles, Owls rebound

The squad was picked second-last in The American preseason rankings.

Sophomore midfielder Elaine Byerley pursues South Florida midfielder Kate Loye during last Sunday’s game against the Bulls. The Owls lost 2-0, their fourth conference loss of the season. Jenny Kerrigan | TTN
Sophomore midfielder Elaine Byerley pursues South Florida midfielder Kate Loye during last Sunday’s game against the Bulls. The Owls lost 2-0, their fourth conference loss of the season. Jenny Kerrigan | TTN

Even the team didn’t see it coming.

The Owls, who were picked to finish second-last in the preseason American Athletic Conference Coaches Poll, currently sit in the seventh spot behind No. 18 Central Florida and Memphis.

The women’s soccer team was ranked fifth in the Northeast region by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America last week, and has a 10-6-1 record through 17 games.

“I knew that we had serious potential for this season but I wouldn’t have been extremely confident in saying that we would be this successful,” senior defender Alyssa Kirk said.

Junior goalkeeper Shauni Kerkhoff, who has five shutouts on the season, shared a similar sentiment.

“I thought that we would eventually get to this point, but I thought it wouldn’t be for a couple of years,” Kerkhoff said. “I never thought that we would be fifth in the region before I left Temple. It just amazes me thinking about how far we’ve come since I came in.”

Coming into the season, several players said they felt they were an improved group from a year ago.

A historic seven-game win streak to start the season helped back that up in the early going, as the Owls had six wins total and just one victory in conference play last season.

After back-to-back losses to Delaware and La Salle to end its non-conference schedule, though, it was still unclear how Temple would fare in The American.

“At the start of the year, even as good as we were doing up until that point it was still like, ‘Alright. This is about to get real. This is about to get different,” coach Seamus O’Connor said.

This team, which sports a 3-4-1 conference record thus far, has made the leap from the basement of The American to a competitor in the conference.

While transfers Kayla Cunningham and Gina DiTaranto have contributed, the Owls have been able to make the turnaround with a roster that resembles last year’s team.

O’Connor said the physical step up his players made in the offseason is one reason why Temple has been able to compete in what he thinks is an improved conference.

“We were so out of it athletically last year,” O’Connor said. “This year with the same players we are one of the most athletic teams.”

Mental toughness is also a new factor that O’Connor said he has seen in his team. The Owls have been able to bounce back from adversity as they have yet to drop back-to-back conference games.

Kirk agreed that whether it is bouncing back from letting up a goal or losing games, her team’s ability to continue to fight is something she has never seen before.

“We literally never lose our fight, we might go down a goal but we immediately are right back in the game getting momentum back,” Kirk said. “It’s something I’ve never seen out of this team and the ability to fight back like this is such a dangerous strength, and probably our biggest strength at this point.”

Kerkhoff said she believes the team’s willingness to fight late in games has played a major role in the team’s success.

“The biggest strength for our team is our physicality and toughness for sure,” Kerkhoff said. “Our Philly attitude is what separates us from other teams.”

Already with their best season on paper in recent memory, the Owls said they are not finished yet.

With a strong RPI and competing with teams in the conference, players said they are prepared to make a run in the conference tournament, as well as an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Kirk, who has three goals this year, said there is no other way to think in her final season with the program.

“Our goal is to win the conference,” Kirk said. “I can’t think about anything else at this point. For me, it’s do or die this season so my goal is absolutely winning the conference and going to the NCAA tournament. We just need to stay confident and focused, and keep finding ways to put the ball in the net.”

Owen McCue can be reached at                              

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