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Nov 13, 2007

Tulsa picks up the winning ways

The University of Tulsa men's soccer team found itself at a crossroads just two weeks into the season.

After starting the year 3-0, the Golden Hurricane had dropped two in a row -- a 2-0 loss to Virginia and a 3-2 loss to Virginia Tech. The Virginia Tech loss was the hardest to swallow as Tulsa, which had led the entire game, gave up two goals in the final seven minutes.

"When we lost, and especially the way we lost, that Virginia Tech game, it was a real learning experience for us because we really faded," coach Tom McIntosh said. "Virginia Tech deserved to beat us and they really kind of overwhelmed us."

On the verge of dropping to .500, the Golden Hurricane prepared to take on Missouri State.

"We weren't playing a top-25 team or anything, but that game, I told the team, was the most important game of the season," senior midfielder Eric Burkholder said. "We had to decide what team we were going to be -- the team that had won the first three games or the team that had lost two straight."

Tulsa opted for the first, and the team (12-2-2) hasn't lost a game since Sept. 14 as it's compiled an 11-game unbeaten streak en route to a No. 10 national ranking.

Not bad for a team that was picked to finish fifth in its conference -- a prediction that still perplexes everyone at Tulsa. After finishing third in Conference USA in 2006 and with most of its talent returning, Golden Hurricane players and coaches felt poised for an even better finish this time around, regardless of anyone else's predictions.

Tulsa found vindication last Friday night, beating the University of Alabama-Birmingham 2-0 to take the regular-season Conference USA title. "It's a validation for us because we knew we were better than fifth place," junior defender Chris Clements said.

Tulsa's success this season can be traced back to the end of last year. The team started 2006 with a 3-7 record, but managed to turn it around in the second half to finish the year 9-10. The Golden Hurricane worked throughout the offseason to maintain that momentum and carry it into the 2007 season. Those efforts have been successful, with the team virtually picking up where last year ended and continuing to make an impressive run. Of course, this season wasn't completely without obstacles.

"Early in the year, we [were] giving up goals and getting outshot in games, but we were finding ways to win games," McIntosh said, stressing the second part of that sentence. "Then we got healthy, and our possession started to get much better and then we improved defensively … We've only given up two goals in our last seven games."

Like a number of other teams, Tulsa has struggled with injuries. It has been only in the past few weeks that the team has played a set lineup. While that has made it difficult to get into a rhythm at times, it's had its perks.

"I kind of like when we mess around with the lineup," Clements said. "It really makes people come out and compete in practice. … The last few games it's been a little more set, but [because of the ever-changing lineup] we know that even if someone does go out with injury, someone can come in and we'll be just as strong."

That self-assurance combined with the confidence that comes from going two months without a loss is just what the team needs as it heads into the Conference USA tournament and prepares for the NCAA Tournament. McIntosh said he doesn't feel that the team has played its best soccer yet. He and his players believe they are on the verge of taking their game to the next level -- physically as well as mentally.

"In seasons past, when we'd be losing toward the end of the season, it would be easy to pack it in and look toward next year," Burkholder said. "But I think going into the postseason this year, we don't expect to lose any games." That's just one more example of how this Tulsa squad is stronger than it has been in recent seasons.

"In the past, we might crack the top 25, and then we might lose the next game because we'd worry about it too much and lose our cool," Clements said. "This year we haven't let that get to our heads. We've gotten in the top 25 and we've stayed there. We've stayed winning and haven't had any upset games."

Keeping that streak going will be critical for the Golden Hurricane, if they want to keep their season alive. However, that shouldn't be a concern as Tulsa has shown no signs of letting up anytime soon.

"After this whole season, we've played some pretty good teams and we've done really well," sophomore forward Jose Parada said. "I'm pretty confident that our team is ready for anything that's out there. Everybody is willing to do what you have to."

Heading into tournament time, a coach couldn't ask for much more.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.