Kicking it up a notch: Soccer atop C-USA
The last time Rice soccer lost, it was early September. Students had just finished their first week of classes since Hurricane Harvey. The first public party of the year had not yet happened, and midterm exams were weeks away.
Rice added to what is now a five-match winning streak this past week by defeating Western Kentucky University and the University of Southern Mississippi 2-0 and 1-0, respectively. The Owls are now 7-2-1 on the season and 4-0-0 in Conference USA play. They sit alone in first place in the conference standings, having not lost since Sept. 8. Head coach Nicky Adams said she is extremely happy with how the team has played this season.
“Rice soccer is playing really good right now,” Adams said. “We have to focus on the things that are making us good and execute game plans.”
The Owls have allowed just two goals in their four conference wins, both in a 6-2 win over Florida Atlantic University to open the conference season. Sophomore goalkeeper Maya Hoyer has recorded three straight shutouts and has conceded just 10 goals in 10 games this year. This week, she was named the C-USA Goalkeeper of the Week for her 10 saves over the course of the Owls’ two matches. Hoyer said the Owls’ defense has done a great job preventing bad errors.
“We’re really close this year,” Hoyer said of the defense. “If we make a mistake we have each other’s backs. We’re always there for each other no matter what.”
The Owls’ defense has not needed to be perfect because the offense has been one of the best in the nation. Rice was No. 5 in the nation in goals per game through last Thursday’s game against Western Kentucky. After scoring a goal in Sunday’s win over Southern Miss, the Owls are averaging 2.6 goals per contest. The top three scorers on the team are freshman midfielder Rebecca Keane with six goals, senior midfielder Nia Stallings with five goals and senior midfielder Samantha Chaiken with five goals. Keane said she is proud to be making an impact in her first year at Rice.
“Coming in with the team being so good already, it was difficult having to work really hard to get a chance to play,” Keane said. “But overall, it’s worth it. I hope I’ve helped the team.”
Despite the two wins this weekend, the Owls dropped from No. 25 to No. 35 in the RPI, largely due to teams ranked behind them beating higher-ranked opponents. Rice remains the highest rated team in C-USA by a wide margin; the University of Alabama at Birmingham is second at No. 94. Despite the team’s high ranking, Chaiken, who scored the game winner on Sunday against Southern Miss, said the Owls can get even better.
“I think the Owls deserve a B+ [for their performance this season],” Chaiken said. “We’ve got a lot more growth to come in the next few weeks and I’m really excited because I think we’re off to a great start. I think we’ve got some more surprises in us.”
Up next, the Owls come home to face the University of Texas, San Antonio on Friday and the University of Texas, El Paso on Sunday. UTSA is currently 2-9-0 overall and UTEP is 6-7-0.
Rice is on a mission to win its first C-USA title since 2014, the last time it made the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the Owls’ season ended in a loss to UTEP in the first round of the conference tournament. The Owls have finished fourth and second in the regular season C-USA standings in the two seasons since their conference title, but they have not yet managed to repeat their postseason success. Hoyer said the key for Rice moving forward is to keep improving.
“We just need to focus on one game at a time and keep working on our weaknesses and we will get to the top,” Hoyer said.
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