Junior midfielder Erin Mikeska was nestled in bed, eager to kick off a new soccer season with her team’s spring international trip to Spain. The coaching staff put together the trip to try to help the soccer team move forward after the 2017 season ended in heartbreak in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately for Mikeska, she and her team would have to wait to enjoy their journey.

“We were supposed to fly out [to Spain] at 4 a.m. on the Saturday, and Friday night our airline called us and said, ‘Sorry, your flight has been cancelled because we are having an employee strike,’” Mikeska said. “We had to get new flights and we got there a couple of days late, but we still got to do everything we wanted to do. We went on two bike tours, and we had an authentic Spanish meal with tapas and paella.”

Once the Owls arrived, the trip quickly became an exhibitional warm-up for the season. Legendary Spanish club FC Barcelona women’s squad was first to challenge Rice, and six-time Copa de la Reina champion RCD Espanyol Femení also scrimmaged.

“We learned a lot from how much passion [Spanish teams] have for the game,” Mikeska said. “How they play is called tiki-taka, one, two-touch passing. The first team we played in Spain really did that and when we got back we were like ‘Hey, we should try to do that.’ It’s hard to play [tiki-taka] on the bigger field because the way [other teams] pressure and defend doesn’t allow us to play that style. I think if we play a team which allows us to do it, it would come alive.”

Head coach Nicky Adams did not schedule Rice’s trip to Barcelona and Valencia with the intention of ditching her preferred physical play to a more technical, tiki-taka style attack. Rather, Adams planned the unprecedented exhibition to give her players a buffer into a new season after last year’s emotional roller-coaster.

The highs of last season included winning the Conference USA regular season title and accumulating an impressive 9-0-1 mark in conference play. Graduated seniors Nia Stallings and Samantha Chaiken were named first team All Conference USA, and junior Maya Hoyerwas a stalwart in goal.

Once tournament play began, the Owls’ luck turned. A disappointing loss to University of North Carolina, Charlotte knocked Rice out of the C-USA tournament in the first round. Despite the early exit, Rice earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament — but a stacked Baylor University squad was too much to handle.

Now, the Owls’ challenge is to replace their two leading goal-scorers and locker room leaders.

“We lost eight seniors,” Adams said. “We lost three starters in some really key positions. You lose [former senior] Mallory Radke at the left back, you lose Chaiken who was not only a great player in the middle of the park but was a great leader as well. And then you lose Stallings in your attack. One thing I am proud of is that we have players with the depth that can step in and create their own game. Tactically, I think we have the people to play similar styles [to last season] but we are extremely young. We have 15 underclassmen and only eight upperclassman. There will be some growing pains.”

Likely to step up for Rice is senior forward Annie Walker. Walker is a two-time recipient of the Warrior Award, which is given to the Owl who plays with the most heart and desire during the season. Her work ethic is one reason Walker started all 18 matches last season, notching nine assists and four goals.

Without Stallings, who was one of the best forwards to ever touch the pitch at Holloway Field, Walker will be tested to initiate more goal scoring chances for her teammates.

“My role is to lead and to lead well,” Walker said. “I want to lead in the right direction. It’s bringing people together and getting people on the same page, in the same mindset. We want to win, we want to play well, we want to play hard, and we want to play smart. We don’t want this to just be another season of Rice soccer. We want this to be the best season.”

Other players who look to feature for Rice include senior forward Marissa Topolski, technically gifted junior midfielder Lianne Mananquil and sophomore midfielder Rebecca Keane, who earned C-USA All-Freshman Team and All-Conference USA Third Team honors last season.

Development of these key players is a priority for Adams. The looming question is: even if the Owls’ underclassmen grow into their roles, will it be enough to build upon the conference title from last season?

“Let’s be honest,” Adams said. “There are so many factors that go into winning championships. Are we injury-free? Are we doing well academically? How does our schedule pan out for home versus away games? How is our internal leadership doing? How are our trainers? There are so many factors that go into it. Last year, every factor was on our side, which is so important to have to win championships as a mid-major program.”

Promising for Rice fans is Adams’ goal to surpass the limitations of mid-major success.

“Every program here, soccer specifically, has standards and expectations we expect to achieve every year,” Adams said. “One of those things is winning conference championships and making the NCAA tournament. Our sights are set there.”