The Bearcats entered 2016 coming off their first title and first NCAA appearance since the 2002 season. A solid corp of returning players were set to the lead the way and, for the first time in the four years UC has been a member of the American Athletic Conference, members of the team were recognized by the other coaches as ones to watch.
Vanessa Gilles, who emerged as one of the top defenders in the league as a sophomore, saw her play recognized in a vote of the coaches as she was tabbed as the conference's preseason defensive player of the year. That honor, along with her also being selected as a first-team preseason all-conference honoree, were the first for a Bearcat since joining the American.
But the accolades did not end there as Jaycie Brown also was sited for outstanding play and was a unanimous selection as a first-team preseason all-conference honoree.
With the accolades handed out, including the team being voted to finish in a tie for third in the standings come season's end, it was time to take the pitch and face the 19 foes on the schedule.
The road swing opened with the Bearcats scratching out a 3-2 win at Evansville. After trailing early, UC responded as Katy Couperus (pictured) returned to the pitch for the first time on over a year and made herself right at home as her first touch was along range shot, traveling over 35-yards and beating the keeper to tie the match at 1-1. Kyleigh Dominguez gave UC the lead with her PK in the 46' before Bailey Wilson struck in the 53' to secure the win.
Staying in the Hoosier State, the Bearcats traveled north to Purdue, where they fell to the Boilermakers, 2-1, in overtime for their first loss of the season. Vanessa Gilles headed home the goal for a 1-0 lead, but PU prevailed, scoring in the 80' and then again in the 97' for the win.
Following their second loss in a row, a 2-0 setback at Boston College, the Bearcats rebounded with a hard-fought 2-1 win at Boston University. On that windy and wet night, Dominguez staked the 'Cats to a 1-0 lead as she stole the ball and scored in the 59' before BU tied it in the 76'. But, with time winding down, the Bearcats turned up the pressure and forced the ball down into the offensive third where Gilles dribbled and sent a shot on goal with eight seconds remaining in regulation, only to see a defender deflect the shot into the goal for the winner for UC.
The win at Boston University not only ended a two-match losing streak, it also propelled the Bearcats into a streak of six-consecutive matches without another loss as the team went 5-0-1 over that time.
A big reason for the streak was the play of the defense and senior keeper Natalie Smith, who posted four shutouts and allowed just one goal in the five matches she played. At the same time, the offense scored 14 goals for a 14-2 advantage in the six matches.
After Boston, and with team back home for a pair of matches, UC posted a 2-0 win over Colorado College before settling for a 1-1 draw with Duquesne. Back on the road, UC downed Lipscomb, 4-0, before returning home to blank Youngstown State, 3-0. The finale in the six-match run saw UC, despite a near-two week layoff, hit the road and hand host East Carolina a 2-0 defeat.
Winners of three in a row, the Bearcats were 1-0-0 in the American Athletic Conference and stood 8-2-1 overall. Despite the success, the Bearcats saw their streak end on the road the following week as they dropped matches at Tulsa (2-0) and Memphis (5-1) to drop to 8-4-1 overall and 1-2-0 in the league.
The team's goal was to control its fate and earn a spot in the conference tournament. To do that, points were needed. Following two losses on the road, results were needed and the Bearcats got just that: four points at home with the Texas schools in town.
Although not the outcome he had desired, Stafford's side picked up one point from Houston after playing the Cougars to a scoreless - despite launching a program-record 44 shots on the day.
Three days later and still in need of points, the Bearcats finally cashed in, grabbing all three from SMU, who, at the time, was a close second in the league standings. On this day, UC controlled the match and scored a 2-0 victory over the Mustangs with Gavorski netting both goals in the win. With those three points in hand - and just four matches remaining on the schedule - the Bearcats continued their push toward the postseason, holding a 9-4-2 record with a 2-2-1 record in conference.
The final road swing awaiting the Bearcats was no easy task: facing UCF and USF, on the road, with both teams tied with the Bearcats in the standings. At that time, three teams were tied for the final two spots in the conference tournament.
First, the Bearcats handed the Knights a 2-0 defeat with Gilles netting the game-winner and Gavorski sending home an insurance goal that helped net three points. With USF winning their match that day, the Sunday showdown of the 2015 conference finals had the makings of a great match.
The teams did not disappoint as the Bearcats jumped out to a 1-0 lead on Gilles' fifth goal of the year. The Bulls, however, tallied once in each half, including the equalizer one minute after UC took the lead and then again in the 76', giving the hosts what looked like a big win. However, the 'Cardiac Cats' had other designs and fought the to the end, this time scoring with 52 seconds remaining in regulation as Jaycie Brown sent a shot in over the keeper to knot the match at 2-2, a scoreline the would stand after overtime.
Thanks to a UCF win vs. ECU, the Bearcats and Knights were tied on points with USF two off the pace heading into the final weekend of play.
With two matches remaining in the regular season, the Bearcats had the task of hosting #19 UConn before taking on Temple in the finale. Despite dropping a 2-0 scoreline to eventual conference champions, the Bearcats outplayed the visitors for much of the match, holding a 26-10 shot advantage, including 10-5 on goal, with a 5-0 advantage in corners.
With the loss behind them, the regular season finale came down to one thing: win and you are in. Lose or tie and await help from others. Playing the Owls, the Bearcats took it upon themselves to decide their fate and did just so, scoring a 2-0 victory on Senior Day to tie for fourth in the league and earn the #5 seed in the tournament.
In the tournament, however, the Bearcats faced #4 seed USF and played the Bulls to a 0-0 draw, sending the match into penalties. In the end, USF advanced with a 4-3 advantage in the spot kick event, eliminating the Bearcats from the American Athletic Conference event and ending the 2016 season.
Overall, UC closed out the year with an 11-5-4 record, going 6-1-2 at home, 5-4-1 on the road and 0-0-1 at neutral sites. With 11 wins, it marked the third year in a row with 10 or more wins, something that hadn't happened since 2000-02.
Five women played their final matches for the Bearcats and were honored following the match with Temple. The departing seniors include Emma Dwenger, Taylor Jackson, Natalie Smith, Kayla Utley and Bailey Wilson.
UC held a .650 winning percentage on the year marking the fourth year in a row the percentage has risen under Stafford and his staff.
The Bearcats won 10 or more matches on the year for third year in a row, which is only the fifth time in program history (37 years) this has happened.
With a 4-3-2 conference record, the four wins marks the fourth year in a row with four or more wins against league foes, the first time this has happened since a string of eight in a row (1995-02).
UC went 3-0-1 in home Sunday matches, improving to 16-0-2 all-time in the four years Stafford has run the program. UC also has outscored opponents, 42-11, in those 18 matches.
UC played five teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament, posting a 3-2-0 record against those teams with wins over Northern Kentucky, SMU and Dayton.
24 different players saw minutes on the year with 19 of those players (79.2%) tallying at least one point and half (12) scoring at least one goal, including five true freshmen.
Offensively, UC scored 30 goals, marking the fourth year in a row it has scored 30+.
Defensively, the team allowed just 21 goals, the fewest surrendered by a Stafford-coached team and an improvement for the fourth year in a row (37, 27, 22, 21).
The team had two stretches where it shut out foes for long periods of time, posting three shutouts in a row twice with scoreless minutes played of 300+ on both occasions.
UC played nine home matches with 9,809 fans attending (1,090 average). That is a 229.38% increase over Staffrod's first year (2,978 fans/426 average).
In his first four years, Staffrod's teams have won 24 home matches, surpassing the previous record of 23 in Meridy Glenn's first four years at the helm.
Season and Weekly Honors Achieved
- Preseason American Athletic All-Conference
- Weekly American Honor Roll - Oct. 23
- American Athletic Conference All-Rookie Team
- Weekly American Honor Roll - Sept. 19
- TopDrawerSoccer.com Team of the Week (Honorable Mention selection) - Aug. 29
- American Athletic All-Conference Second Team
- Weekly American Honor Roll - Oct. 3
- Weekly American Honor Roll - Oct. 19
- American Preseason Defender of the Year
- American Preseason All-Conference
- American Postseason All-Conference First Team
- American Defensive Player of the Week - Sept. 12
- American Defensive Player of the Week - Oct. 3
- American Defensive Player of the Week - Oct. 17
- American Defensive Player of the Week - Oct. 23
- Weekly American Honor Roll - Oct. 31
- American Athletic Rookie of the Week - Aug. 22
- American Defensive Player of the Week - Aug. 29
- American Goalkeeper of the Week - Oct. 3
- Weekly American Honor Roll - Aug. 22
- Weekly American Honor Roll - Sept. 12
- Weekly American Honor Roll - Sept. 19
- Weekly American Honor Roll - Oct. 23
- American Defensive Player of the Week - Sept. 19