Velez Lifts Bulls to Dramatic Win
BUFFALO, NY - Stephanie Velez came to Buffalo with one of the most dynamic seasons a freshman has ever had, but after injuries wiped out her sophomore season, she returned to a key reserve role but remained the heart of the team. In her second to last game playing in UB Stadium on Sunday afternoon, she regained that spark and scored the game-winning goal on a free kick in the 86th minute of a 1-0 win over Western Michigan.
"This whole game we had so many chances, and like much of the season we always look forward to that next play, next pass and next shot," Velez said. "We were working too hard for it not to come out with a win for us. I stepped up and said I want to take it. I haven't been able to shine as much this season and as soon as I scored I was happy that we still chance to be in the playoffs."
The win over the Broncos, who were ahead of UB in the standings for the final spot in the Mid-American Conference tournament, keeps the Bulls postseason hopes alive. After declaring the game a must-win situation after Friday night's loss to Eastern Michigan, head coach Michael Thomas was pleased with the team's play from first whistle to the final horn.
"The girls came out and played incredibly well today," Thomas said. "I keep telling people that we've played good soccer this season, and the team came out and showed what they were capable of all game. Steph has fought through a lot of adversity and a lot of injuries while she's been here, and it's a testament to her confidence and her mental fortitude that she could step up in that moment and make that shot. I'm excited to give ourselves a chance (at the MAC tournament) heading into the final game."
The Bulls came out firing on all cylinders, dictating the run of play throughout the first half. Despite the advantage in possession, though, Western put all five of its first-half shots on goal including three within the first 15 minutes of the game. Ainsley Wheldon made the stops though, en route to seven total saves in the game to give her her fourth shutout of the year.
"The back line played near perfect as you could play," Thomas said. "Ainsley handled all the routine stuff very very well today, but I don't know that she had to make a big save throughout the day and that's a testament to the back four of Shannon Algoe, Kristin Markiewicz, Sophie Therien and Natalie Jurisevic, who all played 90 minutes today."
The Bulls had a pair of open-net chances in the first half, but Broco defenders were there to push the ball clear. In the second half, the team came even close on two more opportunities that were also unsuccessful. Courtney Mann lifted a shot from 18 yards out over a crowded box to the far post, but it was saved by Western's Michelle Watson in the 52nd minute. Megan Giesen had the team's best non-scoring shot on goal all game just a few minutes later, lofting a shot to the high far post that glanced off the post.
Western Michigan's Watson almost gave the Bulls a scoring opportunity in the 61st minute after she came out to retrive a ball and stepped out of the goalie box for a hand ball. Buffalo had a chance to take an indirect kick from straight on at the top of the box, but Watson would rally and tip a high shot from Giesen over the top bar. Another foul call from almost the exact same spot would set up the team's eventual game winner.
In the 86th minute, Giesen again came through and held her ground as the Buffalo back line attempted to put a ball in the box from midfield. She was fouled right at the top of the box and set up Velez for the goal, as she tucked her blistering shot into the lower left corner of the net to set off a jubilant Buffalo bench. Velez was immediately subbed out for an extra defender, and as the senior came off she was mobbed by the reserves.
"It's been a rough road for me, but if it wasn't for my teammates and the people that I have next to me on the bench I would never have been able to get through it," Velez said. "Not playing in the first half was rough, but when you get called you need to make an effort to make a difference."
UB is certainly not out of the woods just yet, and with one game remaining in the regular season the Bulls welcome in rival Akron on Thursday. Still neck-and-neck with Ohio and Northern Illinois, Buffalo can still challenge for the seventh or eighth seed but a loss will likely cost them a chance at the tournament. The Bobcats will face Kent State to close out its season, and Northern Illinois will travel to Toledo to face the Rockets. Kickoff against Akron is scheduled for 3 pm.