Soccer falls to in-state rival SMU in first round
Defense wins championships ... supposedly. With the way the soccer team played defense this season, the Conference USA championship trophy should have been theirs for the taking. After giving up fewer than one goal per game on average, Rice stormed into the C-USA Tournament needing just three victories to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in team history. Their opponent: fourth-seeded Southern Methodist University, who fell to the Owls earlier in the season 2-1. Rice came into the match assuming that senior goalkeeper Catherine Fitzsimmons would be able to post a clean sheet against the Mustangs, an assumption that would prove to ?be correct.
The two squads dueled to a tie in the first half, with the Owls tallying seven shots to SMU's five. The intensity and importance of the do-or-die match was more apparent in the second half with shots firing and tempers flaring. Thirteen shots, seven corner kicks, one yellow card, one red card and no goals were the stats for the last half of play, with the Mustangs being forced to play with 10 players for the last 16 minutes of regulation after the red card. Time and time again SMU goalkeeper Courtney Webb went save for save with Fitzsimmons, continuing to hold off the Rice attack during both 10-minute overtime periods on her way to a nine-saves night. With 110 minutes gone by and the scoreboard still showing zeros, the time for penalty kicks had finally come. Fitzsimmons was replaced with sophomore Gaby Garton, a transfer from the University of ?South Florida.
With Garton known as a shootout specialist, the Owls had to feel good about their chances. Regardless, the shootout got off to a disastrous start for Rice, as senior midfielder Kate Edwards and freshman defender/midfielder Hayley Williams blanked on the first two shots, while the Ponies converted on their attempts. With Rice down 2-0, they turned to sophomore defender Lauren LaGro, who sent her shot into the back of the net with ease. SMU's Logan May helped the Mustangs regain their two-goal advantage, which senior defender/forward Korey Taylor promptly narrowed to a 3-2 lead. With only one shooter left, Rice needed a stop by Garton on the next shot, or their season would be over. Unfortunately, Lauren Shepherd drilled the ball past Garton to give the Mustangs a 4-2 win in penalty kicks and cutting short the Owls' stay in Orlando, Fla.
Statistically, Edwards led all players with five shot attempts and freshman midfielder/forward Jessica Howard was second for Rice with four. Fitzsimmons posted three saves in her final match as an Owl.
This year, though marked by the turmoil associated with the dismissal of Chris Huston as head coach, has seen much improvement from the Owls overall. The team played well when Edwards, one of the team leaders, suffered an injury against Colorado College and was unavailable for several games. This year's crop of freshmen, most notably Williams and Howard, provided a youthful spark that helped the Owls win many games in dramatic fashion. Still, Interim Head Coach Nicky Adams will need to focus on crafting better offensive schemes for the Owls during the offseason to give Rice the chance to say that both defense and offense win championships.
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