Built upon a culture of excellence, the University of Cincinnati women’s soccer program has enjoyed a rebirth in Neil Stafford’s tenure in the Queen City as the Bearcats have continuously shown improvement in each of his first five seasons at the helm, something that has not happened previously. With a strong core of returning players and an infusion of youthful talent, Stafford will look to continue to climb the rankings in 2018 while battling for a conference title and a place in the national tournament once again.
Stafford, who holds a career record of 156-105-34 in 15 years of collegiate coaching, has guided his Bearcats to improved records each of his first five campaigns (based upon win percentages) and carries a 54-44-15 mark into the 2018 season, his sixth at UC.
Statistically speaking, the 2017 season was one of the best in program history for the Bearcats as they allowed just 11 goals to tie the 1984 squad for the fewest in program history, while also starting the year with a program-record 6-0-1 mark. With that start and another strong performance defensively, the Bearcats rose to #11 in the NCAA’s RPI standings, the highest UC has ever ranked, while also increasing the astronomical rise the program has enjoyed under Stafford. When he took the reigns in 2013, the team’s RPI was #227; with the #11 ranking, the Bearcats have risen 216 spots in five years.
The 2017 campaign saw several highlights by individuals. Defensively, the Bearcats were the only team in the nation to have four keepers earn at least a share of a shutout during the season, led by Madison Less’ seven clean sheets. In front of those keepers was senior Vanessa Gilles, who was the AAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year before sharing the postseason award as well. Gilles, who played a school-record 7,426 minutes for the Bearcats, would later go on to sign professional contracts with Apollon Ladies in Cyprus before inking a two-year deal with Bordeaux in the top French division. All told, the UC defense not only combined to tie the record for fewest goals allowed, but also posted a streak of 588:19 in which it allowed a goal, which ranks as the fourth-longest in program history.
Offensively, UC was led by freshman Sophie Gorman, who topped the team with six goals, four assists, 16 points and three game-winning goals. The former high school All-American was an AAC All-Conference Second Team honoree before earning a unanimous selection to the 2018 preseason all-conference team as well. All told, the Bearcats posted a 12-3-4 record for a 71.1 winning percentage, which was an increase over the previous season (.650) for the fifth year in a row. Prior to his arrival, a win percentage increase had happened in two consecutive seasons four times.
In 2016, the team once again improved its winning percentage, posting an increase for the fourth year in a row under Stafford while seeing the team score 30 goals for the fourth year in a row, something that hasn’t happened since the early 2000’s. His team also allowed just 21 goals, the lowest total since 2006 (19). Overall, UC went 11-5-4 on the season and found a way to make the AAC tournament as they tied for fourth place and received the fifth seed following crunch-time points secured.
During the 2016 campaign, Gilles was one of the top players in the conference as she earned preseason defensive player of the year honors (did so as well prior to the 2017 season) and was second on the team in scoring with a career-best six goals. Julie Gavorski led the charge with eight goals and four game-winners while numerous rookies stepped in and helped lay a foundation of depth for UC.
Defensively, UC was backed by Natalie Smith, who posted nine clean sheets to close out her career with 20.2 (#3 in UC history) while recording 209 total saves. In fact, Smith and the Bearcats defense posted a 6-1-2 record at home in 2016 and allowed just five goals in those matches. That stellar play at home helped UC go on a 5-0-1 streak midway through the season after opening 3-2-0 to start the year.
From there, the Bearcats needed results at the end of the season and got just that as they won 2-0 at UCF before tying USF, 2-2, on a last-second goal from Jaycie Brown. Needing a win in their final match of the year to make the post season, the Bearcats did just that, downing Temple, 2-1.
The 2015 squad posted a 13-6-5 overall record and went 5-3-1 in American Athletic Conference play, seeding the team fourth in the conference tournament. From there, Stafford’s side did what it had done throughout the season: battle. Following a comfortable 2-0 defeat of fifth-seeded Memphis, UC found itself down by the same count at halftime in the semifinals to top-seeded and 10th ranked UConn. Two goals with under 11 minutes remaining in the match forced overtime before UC pulled off the come-from-behind upset.
From there, the ‘Cardiac Cats’ played second-seeded and 18th-ranked USF to a 1-1 draw before winning the title in a penalty shootout to secure the seventh conference crown in program history. The victory also sent the Bearcats to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002 and the seventh time ever.
All that success stemmed from his team’s desire to overcome a 2-2-1 opening to the season. Following that opening five-match stretch, the Bearcats went undefeated over their next nine contests (6-0-3) to put them on a path toward an eventual crown. The third win in the streak was a 3-2 decision at Duquesne, which was the 125th career win of Stafford’s career. When it was all said and done, UC improved its final RPI standing by 93 places over its 2014 finish, standing 39th at the end of the year (132nd in 2014).
Academically, the Bearcats were among the best on campus once again as the program finished with a cumulative GPA of 3.512 for the 2015-16 academic year, which ranked fifth overall among UC programs. Their final GPA also was an improvement from the year before when Stafford’s squad held a cumulative GPA of 3.502 for the 2014-15 year.
In his second year with the Bearcats, UC posted a 10-8-2 mark, which marked only the second double-digit victory total the program had recorded since 2002. To get to that win total, UC was fierce at home, tallying a 7-7-1 record at Gettler Stadium. That win total overall was another improvement for the Bearcats as they ended 2014 with an 8-11-1 mark.
Signature wins have become a staple under Stafford with 2015 being no different. UC handed visiting and 18th-ranked USF a 1-0 setback in conference action before its upset of UConn in the tournament. In 2014, the Bearcats posted wins over NCAA Tournament qualifiers USF and UConn and a draw with two-time conference champion UCF.
Prior to taking the reigns of the Bearcats program, Stafford spent two years at the helm of the Central Michigan program (2011-12) following two years as an assistant coach (2009-10). As head coach, Stafford’s Chippewas went 30-10-4 and advanced to the semifinals of the Mid-America Conference Tournament in 2011 before reaching the finals in 2012. In 2012, following a 15-7-1 record, CMU earned an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament, a first for a member of the MAC. Prior to taking over head coaching duties, the Chips won back-to-back MAC titles and earned a pair of NCAA berths.
Stafford got his start in the collegiate coaching ranks in 2000 as the associate head coach for the men’s and women’s programs at Assumption College. That was followed in 2001 when he spent eight seasons as the head women’s soccer coach at Assumption College, where he is the program’s all-time winningest coach with a 72-61-15 ledger.
At Assumption, he was named the Northeast-10 Conference Coach of the Year in 2004 after guiding the Greyhounds to their first NE-10 conference final, NCAA Division II Tournament berth and NCAA Regional final appearance. Assumption finished the season 14th in the nation with a final record of 15-6. Stafford’s squad followed up the breakthrough 2004 campaign with another NCAA Tournament appearance in 2005, finishing 15-4-4 and returning to the NCAA Regional finals, climbing as high as third in the nation.
A graduate of Marlborough (Mass.) High School, Stafford lettered in soccer, hockey and tennis. He also prepped a year at Worcester Academy where he was named team MVP. Alli Pestaina, who joined the Bearcats program for the 2018 season, is a graduate of Worcester Academy.
Stafford attended Norwich University, competing in both tennis and soccer, and was named an all-region NESCAC player before transferring to Southern New Hampshire. He led the Penmen to a two-year record of 29-4-4 and then joined the coaching staff as an assistant coach for three years (1995-97), during which the team advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight. He also played with the Boston Storm (USL).
Stafford was named the Director of Operations with the Boston Renegades (W-League) in 1998 and was also Director of the W-1 National Championships in Boston that year. He later served as the head assistant coach of the Boston Renegades under Peter Bradley (1999-2001). The Renegades advanced to three national final fours and won two W-League National Championships in his final three years. His U-18 Renegades were the national runner-ups in 2000.
During his time in Boston, Stafford worked with several high-level players, including Shannon Boxx and Angela Hucles, both of whom have been rostered on the U.S. Women’s National Team. He also worked with Erica Iverson, the W-USA Defender of the Year, and internationals Nathalie Geeris (Netherlands, 1988-92) and Pauliina Miettenen (Finland, 1992-04).
Stafford also worked with Seacoast United Soccer Club in Hampton, N.H., as the Girls Coaching Director (2002-05). In the summer of 2004, Stafford’s Seacoast United Girls 15 squad won its first Super Y-League National Championship.
Stafford earned his bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire in 1996 while majoring in sociology. He and his wife, the former Jacquie Lacek, a 2017 inductee into the CMU Hall of Fame, have three children: Kayden, Kynlee, and Kamdyn.
Tom Anagnost, Associate Head Coach
Anagnost possesses head coaching experience at Mississippi State (2017-18), University of Miami (2011-13) and Central Michigan (interim in 2008, then 2009-10). Stafford served as an assistant at CMU those two seasons before being promoted to the head position two more years.
Anagnost comes from UIC, where in 2019 he engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in the nation and led UIC to its first-ever Horizon League championship match, in his first year at the helm of the women's soccer program.
In 2019, Anagnost led the Flames to a 12-6-1 record, including a 7-2 mark in conference play. Those were the best season records in program history, and UIC joined five-time champion Milwaukee as the only programs to win seven matches in a nine-match conference schedule. Anagnost was named Horizon League Coach of the Year.
The Flames finished in the nation's top 20 in shutouts, shutout percentage, save percentage, and goals-against average. Most of those accomplishments followed from Lena Kurz' Horizon League Goalkeeper of the Year campaign, in which she set program records for save percentage (.859), wins (11), goals-against average (0.6), and shutouts (10).
Offensively, UIC shattered records as well. The single-season goals, assists, and points records all fell. Two Flames made the All-Horizon League First Team, two more made the Second Team, and two made the All-Freshman Team.
Anagnost's two seasons at Mississippi State were remarkable. The Bulldogs qualified for the first NCAA Tournament in school history in 2018. Anagnost's club received the first top-25 rankings in program history and finished the campaign ranked No. 17 in the RPI. The 2018 Bulldogs set multiple program records including shots allowed per game (11.6), shots per game (18.4) and fewest goals allowed (17).
In his first season at MSU, Anagnost led the Bulldogs to their highest winning percentage in 16 years, a mark of .611 (9-5-4). They also finished inside the top 50 in the RPI rankings for the first time ever, closing the season at No. 39. That season goalkeeper Catalina Perez, recruited by Anagnost, was the first player in MSU history to garner All-America status. Mallory Eubancksbecame the program's first SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year and she was selected 16thoverall by the Washington Spirit in the National Women's Soccer League draft.
Mississippi State set single-game (1,402) and single-season (8,246) attendance records during Anagnost's tenure. The Bulldogs dominated in the classroom, as well, posting a record-high 3.69 grade-point average in fall 2017.
In 2016, Anagnost was an assistant coach at North Carolina State. There he helped the Wolfpack secure their first NCAA Tournament bid in 10 years and reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1995. NC State executed a tremendous turnaround as it won 11 times in 2016 after collecting six victories in 2014 and 2015 combined. In 2014 and 2015, Anagnost served as a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Michigan.
Anagnost was the head coach at Miami from 2011-2013. In his second time leading a program, he helped the Hurricanes to two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances while winning 19 matches over the two-year span. His club knocked off three top-10 teams, including top-ranked Florida State, and set program records for fewest goals against (19), most shutouts in a season (11) and most shutouts in ACC play (6).
The Saginaw, Mich., native's first head coaching stint came in his home state at Central Michigan, where he served on an interim basis in 2008, and as the full-time leader in 2009-10. Anagnost compiled a record of 45-12-7. The Chippewas went 17-4-3 in 2009 under his leadership, a mark that remains the highest win total in CMU history. He was named the Mid-American Conference's Coach of the Year in all three seasons, while leading the Chips to the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and 2010 after becoming the first program in MAC history to win back-to-back regular season and tournament championships. The team also recorded the program's first NCAA Tournament victory and CMU's streak of 13 consecutive shutouts under Anagnost was the second longest in NCAA history.
During his three years at Central Michigan, the women's soccer program won three NSCAA Academic National Championships as it proudly boasted the top GPA in the country for both genders in all divisions.
From 1999-2007, Anagnost coached both girls and boys at the high school level in Michigan with stops at Bay City John Glenn, Heritage and Flint Powers Catholic.
Anagnost played professional soccer in 1995-96, including a stint with the Chicago Power of the National Premier Soccer League in 1995. That year he played under the tutelage of Alkis Panagoulias, former national team coach in Greece and the United States.
Collegiately, Anagnost starred at Kalamazoo College from 1992-95. He was a three-time NCAA Division III All-American and a four-time All-Midwest Region and All-MIAA selection. The 1994 MIAA Player of the Year was the first player in the conference's history to collect three straight All-America awards and four straight All-Region nods. In 2006, he was inducted into the Kalamazoo College Sports Hall of Fame for his contributions over his successful four-year career with the Hornets.
Anagnost graduated from Kalamazoo in 1995 with a bachelor of arts degree in political science. He also minored in history with a Spanish concentration. Later, in 2003, he picked up a teaching certificate from Saginaw Valley State University.
Kyle Venter, Assistant Coach
Venter, who will oversee the goalkeepers, was a three-time All-American at New Mexico. He previously worked at Florida for the 2021 season and Arizona for the Fall 2019 and Spring 2020-21 campaigns. Under his tutelage in Gainesville, Alexa Goldberg stepped into the Gators' starting keeper role and led the SEC with 4.80 saves per game, including 13 against No. 20 South Florida. At Arizona, Venter helped the Wildcats improve from 1.41 to 0.79 in GAA over his first and second years (plus six shutouts in the shortened Spring 2021 season).
While at Arizona, the Wildcats advanced to the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, compiling their most shutouts (10) since 2016 along the way. Venter was elevated from volunteer to assistant coach for the following season.
As a player, Venterhelped lead the Lobos to the 2013 NCAA College Cup as a senior. He was a 2013 Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) Hermann Cup Trophy semifinalist, picking up that season's Conference USA Player and Defensive Player of the Year honors. Venter also earned a spot on the 2012 National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Scholar All-America and 2013 Conference USA All-Academic teams. He finished as the Lobo's all-time leader in minutes played (7,859 minutes). Venter was the first Lobo ever to be named to a Senior CLASS Award team. The Lobos advanced to NCAA action each season Venter was there.
The Aurora, Colo., native was drafted 23rd overall in the 2014 Major League Soccer (MLS) SuperDraft by that season's MLS Cup title team, the Los Angeles Galaxy.
He also spent time in the USA playing for the Tulsa Roughnecks, the Ottawa Fury and Penn FC. He was captain for FC Tucson (2019) and Richmond Kickers (2020).
Venter graduated from New Mexico in 2014 with a Business degree in Human Resources Management and Organizational Leadership.