UCF Football is not the best team on this campus.
Wait, what? UCF Football has had an incredible season so far in 2017. Blowing teams out, sporting a 5-0 record and being ranked in the top 25 would have earned a football team the title of the best athletics program at many universities. Just not this one.
UCF Football is behind the UCF Women's Soccer team, which is having a season to remember themselves. Now, I know some readers have their blood boiling right now and want to send in hate emails and tweets saying, "How dare you!" Let me state that this is not a knock on the football team; it's a compliment to what has been this university's flagship athletics program since 1981.
Most of the real Knights fans who go to many different UCF sporting events, not just football, already know that women's soccer has always been the standard for all other sports on this campus since the success it gained in 1981 under Jim Rudy. UCF went 11-3 in its inaugural year, going all the way to the AIWA National Championship before losing to North Carolina, 1-0, in Orlando. The AIWA stood for Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which was where women could get a chance to play collegiate sports.
In 1982, UCF Women's Soccer was part of history once again, playing in the first-ever national championship game under the NCAA umbrella. Once again, the Knights hosted North Carolina. Once again, the Tar Heels won, 2-0.
The greatest athlete UCF has ever produced in any sport didn't come from football. She came from the women's soccer program in Michelle Akers, who was voted the FIFA Female Player of the Century in 2000. She was a member of Women's World Cup championship teams in 1991 and 1999, and she won a gold medal with the national team during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Akers played at UCF from 1985-88 and helped lead the Knights to the 1987 Women's College Cup, which is women's soccer version of the Final Four.
UCF continued its excellence through the 1990s and especially in the 2000s under head coach Amanda Cromwell. The Knights made 11 trips to the NCAA Tournament in 14 years with Cromwell, including an Elite 8 appearance in 2011. Cromwell talked to Jeff Sharon and me this summer about taking over UCF's program, how Akers convinced her to take the job, and some of greatest moments in program history.
After the 2012 season, Cromwell left UCF to take the head coaching job at UCLA, and the Knights hired Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak, who played with Akers on that victorious 1999 Women's World Cup team. Many wondered how Sahaydak would follow the success of Cromwell. So far, so good as Sahaydak is leading the Knights this year to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in her five seasons.
In all, UCF Women's Soccer will make the NCAA Tournament 15 times in 19 seasons by the end of this year. To put that in perspective, UCF Football has not qualified for a bowl game, which is a much easier achievement by comparison, four times since making its first-ever bowl game in 2005.
Here is a breakdown of how UCF Women's Soccer compares to the other athletics programs on campus in terms of NCAA Tournament or bowl game appearances.
*Not in Division I
UCF Women's Soccer - 20 times: 1982, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
UCF Volleyball - 12 times: 1986, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2014
UCF Baseball - 12 times: 1989, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2011, 2012, 2017
UCF Football - 11 times: 1987*, 1990*, 1993*, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016
UCF Softball - 7 times: 2005,2008, 2010,2012, 2014,2015, 2016
UCF Men's Soccer - 7 times: 1982, 1983, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2010, 2011
UCF Women's Basketball - 4 times: 1996, 1999, 2009, 2011
UCF Men's Basketball - 4 times: 1982 *,1996, 2004, 2005
1987 was the last time this program made the Women's College Cup. This year's UCF team, however, is looking to change that and is currently dominating opponents even more so than the football team. The Knights are on a six-match winning streak in which they have outscored opponents 27-1! That includes a 4-0 thrashing of LSU in Baton Rouge on Sunday. For the season, UCF has outscored its opponents 35-6. Also consider that they have done that with the 20th-toughest schedule in the country!
Imagine if UCF Football had to open the season at Clemson and then play Alabama. That's basically how UCF Women's Soccer opened this season, playing at South Carolina and, following a win over Stetson, hosting North Carolina. The Knights held their own against South Carolina despite having to play one woman short for 75 minutes. That match is UCF's lone loss this season to date. The Gamecocks are currently the No. 1-ranked team in the sport.
But it was Aug. 25 that we will remember as the night when the Knights knocked off then-No. 4 North Carolina, 2-1, in double overtime. It was one of the most dramatic and memorable matches ever played on campus.
Beating North Carolina in women's soccer is like beating Alabama in college football, and I am not talking about the Mike DuBose-led Alabama teams. We're talking about the Bear Bryant-, Nick Saban-led Alabama teams. That's what the Knights did. That was the moment when they all knew they could compete at highest level.
UCF currently sits at 10-1-1 and is ranked No. 7 with the fifth-best RPI in the nation. That is significant because, with the College Cup scheduled to take place at Orlando City Soccer Stadium, the Knights are trying to put themselves in a position where they would not have to leave Orlando for the entire NCAA Tournament. For that to happen, UCF would have to receive a No. 1 seed from the tournament's selection committee. Chris Henderson, who is the Joe Lunardi of women's soccer, gave UCF a No. 1 seed in his most recent bracketology along with South Carolina, North Carolina and Duke.
This team has it all, including an explosive offense which ranks fifth in the country in goals per game. The Knights' offense is led by Morgan Ferrara, who has scored 11 goals in 12 games. The school record is 17 goals by Jennifer Montgomery in 2002.
But Ferrara is far from the only scorer this team has. In Sunday's win at LSU, Carrie Lawrence became the 10th different Knight to score a goal this season. Since falling to South Carolina, UCF is riding an 11-match unbeaten streak and has outscored its opponents 35-4. You just don't see this in a sport where a 2-0 win is considered a dominant triumph.
But this team is also dominating on defense. The LSU win marked the Knights' seventh shutout of the season. They held the Tigers to just four shots in the game and one in the second half. UCF outshot LSU 22-4, including 11-1 on goal. That would be the equivalent of a football team outgaining an opponent by 500 yards.
That win also gave the Knights victories over power conferences teams in the ACC (North Carolina), Pac-12 (Arizona, Arizona State) and SEC (LSU).
UCF is currently in first place in the AAC and finish the regular season with three straight home matches, starting this Thursday against the defending AAC champions, UConn. That's followed by a match versus Temple on Sunday and then lurking on Oct. 27 is a showdown against USF. Much like the football team's regular-season finale versus the Bulls, this version of The War on I-4 could decide the AAC's regular-season champion and who gets to host the American Conference Tournament.
Unlike the football team, however, UCF Women's Soccer has a chance to play for a national championship. They are regarded as one of the Big 3 in the state when it comes to Women's Soccer along with Florida and Florida State. The Knights have created a national brand.
Orlando has been kind to the Tar Heels. North Carolina won the national title here in 1982 and 1983. It is the 1982 championship game that's on my mind, however. 35 years ago, UCF played for a national title against North Carolina (Only UCF Cheerleading has competed in a national championship final since). What if UCF is able to get back to the College Cup and maybe get a rematch with UNC in Orlando? Is this time kind to Sahaydak, a former Tar Heel now in the Black and Gold, as she looks to claim a national championship for UCF?
Regardless, one thing is for sure: If you're a UCF fan or a soccer fan, make sure you check out this team in either one of their final regular-season games or in the postseason. You may get to see a group of Knights to remember.