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Women's soccer season ending, first place in sight

By Darshan Patel     10/24/12 7:00pm

With the season almost over, the women's soccer team has not disappointed, posting an overall record of 10-6-3, including an impressive 7-2-1 mark in Conference USA play. The Owls' improvement from non-conference play to the team they are today is no easy feat, and the team is reaping the rewards of this progress. The Owls are tied for first in the C-USA standings entering the final week of conference play and are trying to not only wrap up a conference championship, but also secure the first seed in the upcoming C-USA tournament, which begins on Oct. 31. 

Women's soccer began during the middle of August with nine non-conference games against competitive teams from other conferences. The Owls came out of the gate with a tough non-conference schedule, playing teams such as Baylor University and Oklahoma State University. These games were set up the team's success in conference play this year, Head Coach Nicky Adams said.

"There's a reason that we go out and schedule really tough teams - so that we are prepared for the conference," Adams said. "With us having such a young team, I think it was good for us to mold really early and be able to do what we have this second half of the season." 

This is Adams' third year as head coach, and she is one of the reasons for the team's success this season. Since Adams took over the women's soccer program in 2010, the Owls have constantly improved, and her players agree that Adams has been key to Rice women soccer's recent rise in C-USA. 

"Since [Adams] took over, we've definitely had a different mindset because our style changed a little bit and became more of a team," team captain and senior midfielder Julia Barrow said. 

Barrow has played for the Owls both before and during Adams' tenure.

With the non-conference games behind them, the Owls turned their attention to the heart of their schedule and conference matchups. The women opened conference play at home on Sept. 21 and 23 with victories against both the University of Tulsa and Southern Methodist University. These two games not only opened conference play with a demonstration of the strength of Rice's team, but also displayed one of the keys to the Owls' success this season: the freshmen.

Freshmen forwards Lauren Hughes and Holly Hargreaves are a major reason the Owls are tied for first in conference play. Hughes and Hargreaves have each scored nine goals so far this year, making them responsible for 18 of the 23 overall goals scored by the team.  Additionally, both women have set Rice women's soccer all-time records for a single season. Hargreaves set a record for the most game-winning goals in a single season. She has scored six so far, including the epic game-winner against Southern Methodist University that helped her net the honor of C-USA Co-Offensive Player of the Week of Sept. 24. Adams said that even before the season she knew Hargreaves and Hughes could possibly play crucial roles this year.     

"We knew coming in that they were going to be impact players for us, but any time with freshmen, you do not know what you are going to get," Adams said. "But those two just came in and we have been on fire ever since the beginning, and both of them took their roles seriously. The thing is, they're working really good together as well." 

With the emergence of both Hughes and Hargreaves, the Owls continued to win, following up their Tulsa and SMU wins with a split on their first conference road trip. The team defeated the University of Southern Mississippi but fell 1-0 to the University of Central Florida, which was ranked No. 10 in the nation at the time. Next, the Owls defeated Marshall University before tying with East Carolina University the same weekend, leaving the Owls tied for second place in conference behind the University of Memphis and setting up a pivotal matchip in Memphis, Tenn., on Oct. 11. 

The game was picked up for national television and was named Fox Soccer Channel's National Soccer Coaches Association of America Game of the Week. The Owls defeated the Tigers  2-0 with goals from Hughes and sophomore midfielder Gabriela Iribarne. The victory also culminated in Hughes winning C-USA Offensive Player of the Week on Oct. 15. The win jolted the Owls into first place in C-USA, where they have remained. Adams herself stressed the importance of the win and getting into first place as crucial. 

Following the Memphis win, the women ended the road trip by defeating the University of Alabama at Birmingham, leading to the final home weekend of the season. This past week's games were the final home games for seniors Barrow, Amy Beger, Alex Burton, Lauren LaGro and Andie Obermeyer. Last week's play resulted in a split with a 1-0 win versus the University of Texas at El Paso on Oct. 19 and a 1-0 loss to Colorado College last Sunday.  

The loss left the Owls tied with Colorado College for possession of first place in C-USA as they head into the final regular-season game tonight against rival University of Houston. For the Owls, the game means more than just bragging rights this year. Also on the line is the C-USA championship and a possible No.1 seed in the C-USA Tournament, based on Colorado College's result in its final game. However, the Owls need a lot in order to have both these things take place. First and foremost, they must defeat UH. A loss to the Cougars, and the Owls' chances of a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament are gone. Also, UCF is right on the heels of Rice and Colorado College and plays a weak University of Southern Mississippi team in its final match of the year. If both the Owls and Colorado College lose and UCF wins in Hattiesburg, Miss., UCF will win the C-USA championship. In essence, the Owls must win today for a championship trophy this season, making today's match the most critical of the year. 

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