Rice soccer is clicking at the perfect time. With just three Conference USA games remaining before the conference tournament begins, the Owls (8-4-1, 5-2 in C-USA) are riding a season-long four-game win streak and are within striking distance of Western Kentucky University, which sits atop the C-USA standings with 18 points. Thanks to their recent hot streak, the Owls have a chance at a special season.
Following a home loss to WKU, the team really could have gotten discouraged. I know I did. After a loss to the University of North Texas the previous week, a second loss meant trouble. Rice fell to 4-3-1 (1-2 in C-USA) after the defeat despite outshooting its opponent 18-7. The Owls hit the crossbar multiple times and a comeback effort never succeeded. But, the only thing they could do was focus on the next match. They came away with a much-needed victory over a hot University of Southern Mississippi team just two days later.
The next hurdle ahead was the weekend road trip against the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Texas at El Paso. Again, the Owls were up to the challenge, successfully earning two victories. Riding a three-game win streak, it became clear in the conversations I had with multiple players that the confidence was high. Rice then went on the road for a second consecutive week for a one-game weekend against Middle Tennessee State University. The Owls won once again. Sophomore forward Annie Walker’s game-winning goal in the 86th minute of the match was the icing on the cake.
So at 8-4-1, I want to look back at the 2014 season. Two years ago during the 2014 Conference USA championship season, the Owls were 7-3-3 at this point in the season. This year’s Owls may not have as many ties as the 2014 squad, but can boast that they have one more victory at this point of the season than even that historic squad. The 2016 squad has scored 28 goals thus far in the season, on pace to easily beat the 33 goals scored in both the 2013 and 2015 campaigns. This team is young and energetic, and head coach Nicky Adams has done an incredible job recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each of her girls and rotating players in a manner that maximizes the team’s potential.
The Owls’ streak can be attributed to key players stepping up at the right times. Sophomores Darcy Mickalow and Walker have emerged as of late. Mickalow shares the team lead for goals with four and Walker shares the team lead for assists with five. The duo has either scored a goal or registered an assist during the four game winning streak. The spark they have provided showed in the match against Southern Miss when both came on as subs late in the game. Within two minutes, they managed to give the Owls a 1-0 lead. Junior Nia Stallings has also emerged during the second half of the year with four goals and five assists on the season. She was named the C-USA Offensive Player of the Week for her efforts against UTSA and UTEP. Stallings played all 180 minutes over the weekend , scored a goal in each game and registered a pivotal assist in the comeback win over UTSA.
The seniors in the back line such as Jenny Fichera and Jasmine Isokpunwu have been anchors for the team and are first and third, respectively, in minutes played. The midfield duo of Samantha Chaiken and Aliza Wolfe are constantly creating chances and are dangerous up top. The remainder of the team has come together and play with extreme confidence while freshman goalkeeper Samantha Colley continues to impress week in and week out. Colley has recorded two shutouts during the current four game streak.
Overall, I am extremely proud of this squad and what they have accomplished thus far this season. It has been a joy to watch this team evolve, and I am even more excited for what lies ahead in the remaining three games of the regular season. The University of North Carolina, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic University each currently have one more point in the standings (16) than the Owls (15). However, that can all quickly change. As it is now, five teams in C-USA are within three points of each other — the equivalent of one win — and it will be an all-out battle for Rice to finish at the top. So, with the challenge lying ahead and with Rice riding a hot streak, let the games begin.