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Soccer leans on experience, newcomers as they look for bounce back season

Photo courtesy Rice Athletics

By Diego Palos Rodriguez     8/23/22 11:24pm

The Rice soccer team walked into last year with mountain-high expectations. After entering the season ranked No. 22 in the country, fresh off of a Sweet 16 appearance the season before, the team was disappointed to finish their year in the first round of the C-USA tournament. But according to senior goalkeeper Bella Killgore, despite a frustrating end to last season, hopes are high within the team as they look to use last year’s struggles as motivation during this season. 

“There’s a chip on our shoulders a little bit,” Killgore said. “At the end of the day, we had a great spring as a team getting better and we’re just looking forward to playing.”

Heading into this season, head coach Brian Lee explained that the team isn’t focused as much on expectations as they are on daily operations and preparing for the season, which includes introducing incoming players to the rotation and system at Rice.

“We’re trying to acclimate all the new players with the old players and [get] everyone on board of how we operate, starting with pre-soccer, how we operate day-to-day,”  Lee said.

This year’s team features seven incoming freshmen, two graduate transfers – including forward and former Big 12 Player of the Year Grace Collins – and one incoming sophomore. According to senior midfielder Delaney Schultz, the newcomers will play a huge role in the team’s success this season.

“We have some good new freshmen, and then Grace Collins and [Madi] Allen from [Texas Christian University] and [Vanderbilt] help a lot in both defense and attack,” Schultz said.

According to Lee, this year’s new additions are expected to play a big role right away.

“All seven of the [incoming freshmen] have done very well in training, and a majority of them are gonna play a prominent role right from the opening game,” Lee said. “So we’ll just play it one game at a time, see how their roles evolve, see how quickly they can acclimate to college soccer.”

In addition to a strong group of newcomers, the Owls are returning a set of highly awarded players. Killgore and Schultz have both been named to United Soccer Coaches’ list of Goalkeepers and Midfielders to Watch, respectively. They were also both named to the preseason All-Conference team and the Hermann Trophy Preseason Watch List, which is awarded to the country’s top collegiate soccer players. Collins, a TCU transfer, and Schultz were also listed in TopDrawerSoccer’s Preseason Top 100. 

Schultz was also named as C-USA’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year and College Soccer News’ Preseason Second Team All-American. She returns as the team’s leading scorer and assist-maker from last season.

But having multiple players on award watchlists did not save the Owls from a rocky start to their season. Aug. 18, the team traveled to face No. 23 Southern Methodist University in their first match-up of the season, where Lee featured three freshmen and both transfers in the starting lineup. The team took an early lead after Killgore, the free-kick-taking goalkeeper, blasted one past the Mustang keeper in the bottom right corner. The Mustangs tied the game up later in the first half with a high header and eventually took the lead in the second half after an outside-the-box chip shot. Despite this loss, the Owls showcased their high-pressure system and a number of their new players.

On Sunday Aug. 21, the squad took on Samford University at Holloway Field, the team’s first home match of the season. The game was locked even with both teams sharing bursts of attacks and a few chances. As the final whistle drew nearer, it seemed as if the game would end in stalemate. That was until, with four minutes to go, Samford sent a high ball that bounced past the Owls’ backline and thirty yards from the goal. Goalkeeper Killgore raced forward to clear the ball, but Samford’s striker reached it first and was able to put it over Killgore, slowly bouncing into the Owls’ net and securing a 1-0 victory for the Mustangs.

These first two games riddled the Owls with injuries for Schultz, sophomore forward Natalie Gorji and freshman midfielder Kallie McKinney. According to Lee, these injuries have pushed some players into unexpected roles. 

“It’s thrown a lot of young players in who wouldn’t be playing the minutes they’re playing, so we’ve just gotta mature quickly and get our communication up,” Lee said. 

Out of the seven freshmen, six have already made their debuts and some have already started filling into the prominent roles that Lee ensured. According to center-back Carsyn Martz, who played the entire 90 minutes in both games, the team and coaching staff have been taking active steps to acclimate the newcomers to college soccer and emphasize their importance in the squad.

 “I think we’ve adjusted well and that’s a testament to coach Lee and the rest of the coaching staff,” Martz said. “The older girls are [also] really welcoming to the freshmen. In terms of playing, it’s definitely next level. I’m just trying to stay competitive and do my best; [being] aggressive on the field.”

The Owls take the field Thursday, Aug. 25, at 6:30 p.m. against Loyola University Maryland at Holloway Field. On Sunday, Aug. 28, they host Incarnate Word University at 7 p.m.

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