After a nearly catastrophic meltdown over a six-game stretch which saw it compile a 1-4-1 record and move from third to seventh in the Conference USA standings, the soccer team righted the ship just in time on Friday, as they tied the University of Houston (6-11-2, 3-6-2 C-USA), 1-1. With a tie, the Owls locked up a spot in the conference tournament.
Senior forward Hope Ward brought the offensive firepower early on, taking three of Rice's first four shots in what could have proved to have been her last match as a member of the Blue and Gray. But the Cougars' Alexis Weaver struck first, scoring less than 10 minutes after entering the game as a substitute. Ward continued the barrage for the Owls as she set up a corner kick in the 39th minute, with Rice trying to even the score before the half was over. Ward's set piece hurtled towards the goal, meeting junior defender Julia Barrow's head just in time as Barrow headed the ball past Houston goalkeeper Sydney George to bring the match to a 1-1 tie. The second half proved to be a battle of the goalkeepers, with Rice's freshman goalkeeper Amy Cyz and George making four saves each. The Owls struck again early in the half, but Houston had two on-target shots in the final minutes of the half, nearly sending Rice to a defeat that could have ended their season.
However, the first 90 minutes ended in a 1-1 tie, meaning that a 10-minute overtime would be played, with the first team to score winning the game. The Cougars and Owls tallied one shot apiece in the first overtime, both ending up above the crossbar. The second and final overtime began, with only 10 more minutes separating Rice from a berth in the conference tournament.
Houston's Jessica Zavala fired a shot from close-range in 103rd minute, only to see it land in the arms of Czyz for yet another save. Ward added another shot that went wide of the net, but the last overtime period ended with no more goals scored, allowing Rice to clinch the sixth-seed in the confernce tournament, setting up a rematch against Southern Methodist (11-7-1, 7-3-1 C-USA) in the first round of the tournament on Wednesday, Nov. 2.
Head Coach Nicky Adams was proud of the team's resiliency and the seniors' effort at the end of their collegiate careers.
"Any time Rice and Houston meet, it doesn't matter what the teams have done before, it is always a physical battle," Adams said. "All we had to do was get a tie, and our girls battled and came from behind. It's a remarkable thing to do when both teams had their backs to the wall. I'm excited that we get another opportunity to extend the season for [Rice's] seniors."
The Owls had taken their match against SMU earlier this season by a 1-0 score, but it was the Mustangs who showed early on why they were the third-seed, earning three corner kicks and shooting twice on goal before the first 20 minutes were up. The Owls countered with two more shots, but it was clear their inconsistencies on offense had come back to bite them in the first 30 minutes of the match. Finally, SMU's Courtney Smith broke the scoring drought, angling a free kick from the right side of the goal to just land inside the upper left corner of the net. The Ponies shot twice more before the half was over and it was clear the Owls had been sorely outplayed in the first 45 minutes.
The Owls have also been known for their dramatic comebacks this season and the second half was certainly the time for it, with only for 45 minutes potentially remaining in the 2011 season. SMU came out looking to turn the game into a blowout, outshooting Rice 4-1 in the opening 15 minutes of the half. Ward would get another corner kick in the 70th minute, booting it towards sophomore defender Hayley Williams, who headed the ball past SMU goalkeeper Courtney Webb, tying the match up with 20 minutes remaining. The rest of regulation became a chess match, with both coaches making a flurry of substitutions, but only a few serious scoring opportunities occurred.
Unlike the first overtime of the Houston match, both teams fired off shots with little abandon, as Rice had three shots by three different players, while SMU managed two. Still, the game remained tied at one goal apiece, just 10 minutes away from a shootout. With this situation, the Owls couldn't help but think back to last year's first round of the C-USA tournament, when Rice lost to SMU in a shootout 4-2. Interestingly enough, it was a player who wasn't even present at that match last year that made the ultimate difference.
Sophomore defender Rachel Petmecky threw the ball into sophomore Jessica Howard, who was quickly met by several SMU defenders. Just before they closed in, Howard passed to freshman midfielder Ashton Geisendorff who took a shot from the right side that flew past Webb and sent the Owls to the second round with a 2-1 victory. It was Geisendorff's first career goal and Adams was proud of her team's ability to rally.