Like a losing season for the Washington Redskins, the soccer team's elimination by shootout in the Conference USA tournament seemed inevitable. Last year, Southern Methodist University defeated the Owls 4-2 in a shootout after no goals were scored in 110 minutes. This year, Rice escaped a complete scenario of deja vu by beating the Ponies in overtime. But the shootout defeat finally found the Owls in the semifinals of the tournament, this time at the hands of the University of Texas-El Paso.
The Owls took to the pitch at Mike Rose Soccer Complex in Memphis, Tenn. last Friday with hopes of advancing to the C-USA finals for the first time since 2005. The Miners, coming off an upset victory over Colorado College, proved to be equally ready for this momentous match. Both teams came out strong, with UTEP amassing three shots in the first 15 minutes, while Rice had two, including two shots by freshman forward Ashton Geissendorf that were both saved by UTEP goalkeeper Sarah Dilling. Junior defender Julia Barrow came close to scoring in the 29th minute off a header that went just wide of the net, which proved to be the Owls' last scoring opportunity of the half. The Miners managed a few more shots in the half to bring their first-half total to seven.
Yet another patented halftime speech by Head Coach Nicky Adams appeared to light a fire underneath the Owls as three corner kicks by senior Hope Ward helped to set up on-target shots from Geissendorf and fellow freshman midfielder Quinney Truong, but both were either high or saved. A flurry of fouls around the midpoint of the half demonstrated each team's scrappy mentality associated with their underdog standings coming into their first-round matches. Still, UTEP could muster no offense, with Ward, senior Nikki Storness, sophomore Jessica Howard, and junior Amy Beger getting in on the shooting action before regulation ended. Dilling stonewalled them all, giving her team a shot at victory in overtime as 90 minutes had passed and no goals were scored.
Ward and Barrow had one shot apiece in the first overtime, but the real scoring threat came from UTEP's Brittany Kindzierski, who fired a shot that was barely saved by Rice freshman goalkeeper Amy Czyz. The second overtime began, and while Rice continued its two-period trend of outshooting the Miners, shots from Storness and junior defender Lauren LaGro were blocked and Beger's shot went just high of the crossbar. After 110 minutes, no one had managed to put the ball across the goal line, so a shootout would determine the winner and the right to a spot in the championship game.
The Owls went first in the shootout proceedings, but sophomore Alexandra Trenary's shot missed. The Miners capitalized on their first shot and led 1-0. LaGro countered with a converted penalty kick of her own, but the Miners kept pace with a shot from Kindzierski and led 2-1 after two shots apiece. Czyz shot third for the Owls, which is a rare occurrence since goalkeepers are normally not chosen to shoot penalty kicks, and missed to put the Owls in dire straits. But UTEP's Amanda Pak missed her kick to keep the tally at 2-1 in favor of UTEP with just two shots remaining for each team. Junior forward Alex Burton stepped forward to take the fourth shot for Rice, but came away dismayed after missing her kick. This time, the magic number for UTEP was just one; another shot made by the Miners or another shot missed by the Owls would propel UTEP into the final. UTEP's Katie Dorman wasted no time, putting the next penalty kick past Czyz to give the Miners a 3-1 victory in penalty kicks. Adams was disappointed in the outcome, but happy with her team's effort.
"I thought we played a hell of a game," Adams said. "We had about six opportunities that fell right on the goal line, and if you don't finish those, it's a sad way to end in PKs.
Rice finishes the year 10-7-4, marginally better than last year's 8-8-4 record. Still, due to the team's wealth of young talent, things are looking up for Adams and the Owls.
"I'm happy with our girls," Adams said. "We had a really young team, and we got to experience a little bit of everything. We had a lot of success, being ranked as high as 24th in the [Ratings Percentage Index] [on Oct. 5], and learned a lot about ourselves. I'm gonna be honest, that four-and-seven, home-and-away [in the C-USA regular season] schedule is tough. Our girls battled, and I'm really proud of the effort they gave today. This is a hard way to lose, but it does not say anything about how we played that game."
The Owls will lose Ward and Storness to graduation, two players who started nearly every game for the team this season. Annie Kadota was also a key reserve for Rice this season, playing in 19 games. Still, these players accounted for just 12 of Rice's 81 points (combined number of goals and assists), meaning that most of the offensive attack will be intact in the 2012 season.