13-8-4. That's the record of the soccer team since Head Coach Nicky Adams took the helm back in September 2010, a 25-match record that presents a stark contrast to the 6-10-3 record the Owls endured during the 2009 season. Two of those 13 wins came this past weekend as Rice took to the road to face Southern Methodist University (7-5-0, 3-1-0 Conference USA) on Saturday and the University of Tulsa (7-4- 2, 1-2-1 C-USA) on Sunday. With the Owls and Mustangs having nearly identical records, the fans at Westcott Field in Dallas were expecting a close matchup featuring two of the conference's top defenses, which is exactly what they got. SMU came into the tussle very confident after knocking off the 19th-ranked University of Central Florida, while the Owls were hoping to bounce back from a tough 1-0 loss to the ninth-ranked University of Memphis. After 45 minutes, the score remained deadlocked at zero, with SMU having a slight advantage in terms of total shots and corner kicks. Freshman goalkeeper Amy Czyz stonewalled the Mustangs' attempts to put points on the scoreboard, but the Owls' attacking forwards were unable to capitalize on a few first-half breakups, pushing the ball forward too often when the numbers were not to their advantage. Adams spoke about the Owls' initial nerves that kept them from setting up better opportunities for goals.
"It was young players in a big game, and we were playing a little too excited this time," Adams explained. "Up front we struggled a little in the first half in trying to hold the ball. It was just a matter of slowing down a little and giving our midfielders a chance to help out. Once we did that, we did much better in the second half. The girls are really very smart, and they did a good job of making the adjustments we needed to make. That's very encouraging for such a young team, that they'll adjust to get the job done."
The next 39 minutes were much of the same, with the shot totals evening out to four for the two teams in the second half. Thanks to freshman forward Quinney Truong, a product of Fort Worth, the Owls only needed one shot to seal the victory. In the 84th minute, Truong took a pass from her roommate, freshman midfielder Gabriela Iribarne, right as a defender committed to stopping Iribarne and briefly settled the ball before booting home a goal to the right side of the net that would prove to be the game-winner just minutes later. Although Truong has been one of the more active freshmen this year in terms of playing time, Friday marked her first collegiate goal. Adams talked about the pressure SMU applied in the last six minutes of the match, along with her enthusiasm at Truong getting her first goal in front of family and friends.
"Conference USA is a powerhouse conference where every team is very good," Adams said. "To go in to SMU and upset them on their home field is a huge win for us. Both teams played hard, and I was very, very happy with the goal we scored. Quinney has been due for a goal, and for her to score it up here was very nice."
Without the defense's sustained effort, Rice would have never been in the position to win the match, to which Adams attested.
"I thought defensively our backs were a solid to get another shutout," she said. "Amy Czyz was phenomenal tonight. She made three big saves that any one of them could have been game-changers. We had a nice Rice crowd up here with some of our Dallas-area families, so that was big."
With a key win over a talented opponent under their belt, the Owls headed further north to take on the Golden Hurricane, a team considered to be middle-of-the-pack in C-USA. Fortunately for Rice, it took only 10 minutes to net their first goal, a tally from junior forward Alex Burton, who had recently been reinserted into the starting lineup. Burton turned a pass from sophomore Jessica Howard, the leading scorer for Rice, and wasted no time in giving the Rice the 1-0 lead off her shot. Adams talked about Burton's success in returning to the lineup for the Owls.
"Alex had a great week of practice, and she's been working on the things we asked her to work on," Adams said. "That's the reason she got the start today, and she did really, really, well. I thought she had a great game. The coaches and her teammates have full confidence that Alex can be dangerous for us. We have a lot of depth this season where different players can start and score."
Still, Rice managed just four shots in the first half, one more than Tulsa, and Adams saw early on in the second half that Rice could profit from a few key substitutions. Sophomore defender Britton Cartwright checked into the game, and just eight minutes later, senior forward Annie Kadota entered the game, taking Cartwright's pass on the wing and quickly scoring her second goal of the year in the 77th minute to push Rice's lead to 2-0. With that exclamation point of a goal, Rice played tight defense the rest of the way to give Czyz her second shutout of the weekend and send Rice back to Houston with its eighth victory of the year.
Adams spoke about the team's resolve and determination to outplay the Golden Hurricane in the second half.
"Again, our depth is one of our strengths," Adams explained. "It's just a matter of when we're connecting passes, we're getting opportunities. We help ourselves when we play together. I didn't think we had the best run of play in the first half, but the second half I think we did a much better job. We maintained possession and forced Tulsa to defend us a little more in the second half.
Rice will play against Colorado College (5- 4-3, 3-0-1 C-USA) today at 5 p.m. in Colorado Springs and will then head south to El Paso to take on the University of Texas at El Paso (9-3-1, 3-1-0 C-USA) on Sunday at 2 p.m.