USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - A captain of a team usually is someone with loads of experience who knows how to steadily steer the ship after being in it for years.
Valorie O'Brien broke the mold.
The senior defender/midfielder was then a freshman and a part of USF head women's soccer coach Denise Schilte-Brown's first real recruiting class, having taken over the program the year before in 2007.
O'Brien and the young team missed out on the Big East Tournament in 2008 and she saw a lot of things that needed to be fixed moving forward.
"After the first season she came in and was like, 'We're not mature enough and these are the things that we're not doing well on and off the field and I'm frustrated about it,'" Schilte-Brown remembered. "I said, 'Well, then do something about it... You want to help put this vision together, then you put your stamp on it because it's your class that's going to drive this team.' "
O'Brien, a Winter Park native, was able to speak her mind because of the experience she had in high school. Lake Highland Prep had a good mix of younger and older players, who all were on the same page mentally.
"I thought that bringing that here could really get us where we needed to go," O'Brien said.
A USF captain was officially born when O'Brien was only a second-semester freshman.
"That's a big weight and I took that as a challenge," she said.
At that point, O'Brien knew exactly what had to be done from her own personal standpoint.
"To be named that so young, I think there had to be some respect at least among some of the coaches and probably some of the players as well," she said.
O'Brien called her captaincy a learning experience and she's evolved into someone who can speak up when the team needs a lift.
"I hear and I see a lot," she said. "It's easy for me to be there to encourage someone when they don't do well or to lift the team up when we don't have our rhythm yet."
Respect was quickly earned for O'Brien, who helped the Bulls make the Big East Tournament in each of the past two seasons. USF was the runner-up last season and went 14-6-3.
"She puts so much time and effort into being a better person and a great player," Schilte-Brown said. "The girls have come to value that and understand, 'Wow we have that on our team and we're using it.' "
USF has tasted a fair amount of success this season at 4-3-2 and O'Brien said the team itself is a big difference from when she started as a Bull.
On the field, USF is now more of an aggressor. Its style has evolved into sending more attackers toward the net and possessing the ball for a longer period of time.
"Now we have forwards to hold the ball for days at a time if need be. To see that evolve has been wonderful," she said.
O'Brien, an anchor in the middle of the field, also has noticed the team's bond is much stronger on and off the pitch.
"The connection between players; the belief that people are going to be there behind you and working for each other has grown exponentially," she said.
The Bulls now get to show the nation how far they've come along in Thursday's huge Big East home test against defending national champion Notre Dame. The game will be broadcast across the country on Fox Soccer Channel.
"It's unreal but it's exhilarating to know that it's coming up," O'Brien said. "To think back when we weren't even ranked and now we're facing the defending national champions, it's really, really exciting."