By Chris Jones, UConn Athletic Communications
First Round Match Info
STORRS, Conn. -- Sunday afternoon was a moment that the UConn women's soccer team has been waiting awhile for. With their 3-2 win in penalty kicks, the Huskies defeated USF for The American Athletic Conference Championship. For the program it was the first championship won since the 2004 Big East Championship.
More importantly, it ensured they would see their name in the NCAA Tournament bracket for the first time since 2010. The seniors first chance at playing in the big dance.
"First off it's really exciting," said senior defender and All-Conference First Team member Gabrielle Charno (Seaford, N.Y.). "It's about time. We have had some tough times the past couple years but we have a great group that is really clicking heading into the tournament."
Before 2010 the Huskies had only missed the NCAA tournament one time, 2008, since the program started in 1979, but these Huskies haven't been a part of the tournament since they stepped on campus.
"It's big for our program, we need to be back in the NCAAss", said eighth-year assistant coach Margaret Rodriguez.
"Getting the first game at home is huge for us and we just need to take it one game at a time right now. This is big for our program and our team deserves it. We have been knocking at the door the last couple years and been a little unlucky."
The Huskies are currently making the transition from celebrating a championship to focusing back on their biggest game of the season, an NCAA First Round match against New Hampshire on Saturday.
"It's always a little bit of a challenge because you have an immediate goal right in front of you [at The American Championship] in Tampa. You go down there with one goal in mind of winning a championship," said fourth year assistant coach Zac Shaw.
"Now you have a much bigger tournament and we can't look past UNH. They have put together a solid stretch here to end the season. They will be a tough opponent."
At practice on Thursday (Nov. 13), the team was focused and budding with confidence, riding a five match unbeaten streak that's included five straight shutouts, the most consecutive shutouts since 2006.
"I think our six in the back have really started to figure it out. The addition of Tori [Patterson], Louie [Hunsberger] have been huge along with Gianna [Roma], who is seasoned because she has been on the team just like me," said Charno.
"With Sam [McGuire] and Bri [Butler] in front of us we just finally figured it out. We are playing really well together and Emily [Armstrong] and Sauce [Saucier] are splitting time and that's working. Everything is working. We just have to keep momentum going."
Two key pieces to the defense have been transfers, Toriana Patterson (Yorktown Heights, N.Y.) and Megan Hunsberger (Bethlehem, Pa.), who immediately fit into the UConn family. Their personalities have been big assets to the current Husky squad.
"Louie makes some great runs out of the back and she has an attacking personality and that helps a lot," said Charno. "She is not shy at all, very loud, very vocal. It makes me comfortable playing next to her because she will not be afraid to say to say something to me and help coach me.
"Tori is a big body, she is going to knock girls off the ball. I'm a little afraid of Tori sometimes. She is a big presence and she is very calm and confident so when she is directing traffic back there she is saying it quickly, sternly and the quickest way possible," Charno added.
Patterson believes that the Huskies different personalities are a perfect blend and one of the reasons that the team gets along so well.
"There are some players that are more mellow and relaxed," said Patterson. "Then you have the hyper and energetic players that blend in with that. It's a mixture that has bled success for us."
The addition of seniors Gianna Roma (Foxboro, Mass.) and Lindsey Watkins (Litchfield, Conn.) to the starting lineup, jioining classmates Charno, Riley Houle (Columbia, Conn.) and Julie Hubbard (Waverly, Pa.), has been a big boost for UConn as it hits the stretch run.
"Gianna has always been a phenomenal one on one defender," said Charno. "When she came in for the senior game against UCF and shut down their forward on the outside that gave her confidence. We have so much faith in G. Same thing with Lou [Watkins] because Lou is a really good player and works really hard off and on the ball. I'm glad their work is finally paying off because they are always fit and always working so hard."
Leadership has been another key to success for the Huskies. As junior midfielder Samantha McGuire (Fishkill, N.Y.) mentions there is no single voice of leadership.
"Coach said that it doesn't matter what year you are," said McGuire. "As long as you push the team in a positive direction and everyone on the team seems to do that, then we will be in good shape. Everyone is supporting one another and that makes it easy for us.
As the seniors, gear up for the game on Saturday it may be the last time that these five have a chance to play in front of the home crowd.
"It's going to be awesome because it's probably my last game at Morrone," said Charno. "I'm going to play my heart out in front of the home crowd and I know the seniors feel the same way. Every person on the team has something to play for because we all want to make a national championship run.
That run begins at Saturday night at 5 p.m. against New Hampshire. It's a chance for these Huskies to experience the tournament for the first time but also a chance to make a statement. A statement that says UConn is back.