Nov. 17, 2011
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - At the time, UCF's 2-1 loss to Florida Gulf Coast back on Sept. 24 seemed like the worst thing imaginable. After all, it ended the longest unbeaten streak to start a season in recent school history at eight games and proved to be the only blemish on a 6-1-2 record.
But looking out at the fire and focus that his team possessed earlier this week as it prepared for Thursday's rematch against FGCU, UCF head coach Bryan Cunningham liked how a loss from six weeks ago still stuck with the Knights. And he expects his team to unleash that frustration in first round play of the NCAA Tournament.
``We definitely want to get some revenge against them,'' UCF senior forward Cameron Cooksey said. ``Obviously they beat us earlier this year on our home field and they're a little upset that they aren't able to host the game because they beat us and they think they are better than us. But we know we're better than them, so it's up to us to go out and show it now.''
That chance will come tonight at 7 p.m. at the UCF Soccer Complex for the Knights (11-5-3). UCF is hosting a first-round game for a second-consecutive year after having whipped South Florida last season. UCF ultimately made a run to the second round last season where it lost an early lead to Michigan, which proved to be a Collegiate Cup team.
Cunningham, the architect of UCF's men's soccer success the past two seasons, feels his team has the potential to craft an extraordinary postseason run, but he knows it all starts with a win tonight against Florida Gulf Coast.
``Coming off the way we played last year at home against South Florida, the NCAA Committee saw that we're a good team and we have some credibility. To be able to come back and host this year, we have to prove the Committee right and put our best foot forward with a win,'' Cunningham said. ``Last year's experience really helped us. We were up a goal at Michigan and unfortunately gave two away, which is odd for this team to do. This group is finally healthy and we'll be able to pick from our full team. There's no reason that we can't make a run, but we have to get off to a good start (Thursday) night.''
UCF lost to Florida Gulf Coast in September despite dominating the action with a 17-9 advantage in shots and a 9-4 edge in corner kicks. Also, the Knights were without standout scorer McKauly Tulloch because of a suspension for a violation of team rules. Tulloch, a dazzling playmaker from Jamaica, had 15 goals and four assists this season for a team-high 34 points. The loss to Florida Gulf Coast was felt immensely by Tulloch, who felt that he had let his teammates down.
``I wasn't on the pitch and was on suspension. Knowing that I'm on the pitch now, I hope it gives guys extra confidence,'' said Tulloch, who ranks third nationally in both goals per game (1.0) and points per game (2.27). ``I really want to play against them because I feel like it was my fault for the team losing because I was the leading scorer and I wasn't there for that game. I took that one hard, and I want to come back this time and help my team get this victory.''
Winning has become a way of life for a UCF program that has spent the entire season in the Top 25. The Knights rose to as high as No. 6 in the country and placed six players on the All-Conference USA squads. Cunningham prefers to keep things simple and has his team focus solely on the task at hand and nothing more.
``Every kid that we have recruited knows that we're competing for championships. We don't put that up on the wall, but they know that's the end result,'' he said. ``Going game-by-game, it's been a great season. With the exception of the loss to Memphis, every team that we lost to is going to the NCAA Tournament. We've played a lot of quality opponents and now we have to come out with the right mentality for this tournament.''
And dead ahead is a shot at redeeming one of the season's toughest losses. Cooksey, who had a goal and four assists this season while also serving as one of the team's most spirited leaders, sees UCF being ready for Thursday night's big showdown.
``When we lost to them earlier in the season it was a heartbreaker for us,'' Cooksey admitted. ``We expected to win, but we didn't come up with the result. So this time it should be different if we just play our game.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.