The Coleumn: UConn is becoming a soccer school again 

UConn women’s soccer plays against Xavier at the Morrone stadium in Storrs, Conn. on Oct. 8, 2023. The Huskies put up a good fight but lost 0-1, therefore ending their 5-game winning streak. Photo by Siham Nedlouss/The Daily Campus.

Just from looking at the “Basketball Capital of the World” nickname displayed on the new Harry A. Gampel Pavilion court or hearing about the moniker, one might assume UConn is solely a basketball school. That makes sense given that the two basketball programs have won 16 combined NCAA Tournament championships since 1995, more than any other Division I school in the nation. 

UConn is more than just a basketball school, however. Since returning to the Big East conference in 2020, the Huskies have won five conference regular season titles and four conference tournament trophies across three non-basketball sports. Add in their nine track and field team titles, and Connecticut has brought home more Big East championships than any of their 10 conference foes in that span. 

Both of the Huskies’ soccer programs may be joining that conversation of success again soon. 

Dating back to 1982, the first year the NCAA sponsored women’s soccer, UConn’s men’s and women’s teams have earned 11 conference tournament titles, qualified for 55 NCAA Tournaments and advanced to the College Cup, the college soccer version of the Final Four, 11 times. Only one of those NCAA Tournament appearances, however, has come since former women’s soccer head coach Len Tsantiris retired following the 2017 season. 

2023 officially marked the start of a new soccer era in Storrs. 

Men’s basketball head coach Dan Hurley’s teams made gradual strides before bringing home their fifth national title in April, and the same progressive development is happening with second-year men’s soccer head coach Chris Gbandi. Previously the head coach at Northeastern University, Gbandi inherited a program that won two out of 17 Big East matches between 2020 and 2021 and grabbed a road victory three times in three seasons. 

All-Big East Third Team selection Scott Testori served as the catalyst for the Huskies’ offense, finishing fifth in the conference with eight goals and 20 points. Only three-time American Athletic Conference All-First Team forward Abdou Mbacke Thiam has scored more points in one season for Connecticut since 2018 with 35. Testori got company on the third team from sophomore midfielder Pierce Bateson and co-Big East Freshman of the Year Kieran Chandler, but midfielder Nicolas Tomerius one-upped all three of them with a spot on the All-Big East Second Team after a nine-point sophomore season. 

Two-time Big East Goalkeeper of the Week Jayden Hibbert significantly improved between his freshman and sophomore campaigns. Posting a 1.72 goals against average with 15 saves behind Boston University graduate transfer Michael Stone as a freshman, Hibbert became a program cornerstone with a 1.45 GAA and three shutouts in 14 matches. 

Missing out on the Big East Tournament on the last regular season matchday in 2022, the Huskies qualified for the conference’s 2023 postseason as the No. 5 seed behind a 4-4-0 conference record. Down Hibbert because of a suspension, senior goalkeeper Kyle Briere stepped up and saved six shots in his first career start versus the fourth-seeded St. John’s Red Storm. Tied at one after 90 minutes, forward Eli Conway scored the difference-maker in the second extra-time period for a 2-1 upset in Queens. Despite the momentum they possessed, UConn’s season ended in a 2-0 loss at the hands of the top-seeded Georgetown Hoyas. 

UConn women’s soccer plays against Xavier at the Morrone stadium in Storrs, Conn. on Oct. 8, 2023. The Huskies put up a good fight but lost 0-1, therefore ending their 5-game winning streak. Photo by Siham Nedlouss/The Daily Campus.

The Huskies exceeded expectations without 2022 All-Big East First Team midfielder Mateo Leveque, who transferred to the defending national champion Syracuse Orange, forward Frantz Pierrot or defensive stalwart Bjorn Nikolajewski, who left for St. John’s. With Connecticut’s top four scorers all having at least one year of eligibility remaining, Gbandi has the core pieces for the men’s soccer team to be a contender in the Big East again alongside teams such as the Hoyas and the Xavier Musketeers. 

During his 37-season tenure in Storrs, Tsantiris developed 11 players who recorded 100+ points in their collegiate careers. One of those former players, current women’s head coach Margaret Rodriguez, has officially forged a new legacy. Rodriguez earned All-Big East Second Team honors in 1996 and 1998, two out of three seasons in program history where the Huskies had six All-Big East selections. With the New York native at the helm, UConn’s 2023 team matched that program record, tying with Georgetown and the Musketeers for the most representatives from one club. 

Senior goalkeeper Kaitlyn Mahoney became the Huskies’ first Big East Goalkeeper of the Year in three seasons behind an absurd 0.53 GAA with 10 shutouts in 19 games. Despite taking home the prestigious honor, Mahoney ended up on the All-Big East Second Team with graduate forward Cara Jordan and senior defender Lucy Cappadona. 

While junior midfielder Abbey Jones earned a spot on the third team behind a 12-point campaign, graduate midfielder Jessica Mazo and sophomore forward Chioma Okafor landed on the All-Big East First Team. Mazo earned her second first-team selection in four seasons with a career-high four goals and 12 points. Earning her place on the All-Big East Second Team as a freshman, Okafor halved her jersey number and exceeded her first-year numbers with a team-best six goals and 15 points. 

In their first three seasons back in the Big East, Connecticut made three conference tournament appearances and went home after one match on the road. Going 6-3-1 in Big East play and finishing third in the conference standings, that all changed for the Huskies. The sixth-seeded Butler Bulldogs tied the quarterfinal match at two with 20 minutes remaining, but they could not go ahead as Okafor’s game-winner in the 89th minute secured UConn’s 3-2 quarterfinal victory. Like the men’s team, the Hoyas concluded the Huskies’ 2023 campaign in the Big East Tournament semifinals. 

UConn fans enjoyed a sustained period of soccer success that lasted until around 2019, the season before the COVID-19 pandemic. Although neither program qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight fall, it will not be long before the Huskies put Storrs back on the college soccer map. 

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