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Soccer wins first AAC match, drop two over weekend

Courtesy Rice Athletics Freshman forward Sophie Zhang dribbles the ball in a game over the weekend. The Owls won their first American Athletic Conference game this weekend, defeating Temple University 1-0 in their first win since Aug. 27.

By Diego Palos Rodriguez     10/18/23 12:13am

Rice won its first American Athletic Conference game last week on the road against Temple University but lost to No. 10 University of Memphis and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, bringing their conference record to 1-5 and their overall record to 3-11-1. 

Their first bout was against a Memphis team that has only lost one game this season at the hands of No. 24 Alabama. In preparation for this game, head coach Brian Lee said he directed the team to play a lot more defensively compared to any other game this season given Memphis’ offensive strength.

“Memphis’ front line is as good as almost anybody’s in the country, especially the two wingers,” Lee said. “[Considering] the way we’ve defended so far this year, we weren’t just going to roll out in our regular setup. I thought [we] did really well [with it].”

While Memphis applied pressure early in the game, the Owls’ defense, along with graduate goalkeeper Hannah Pimentel, kept the Tigers at bay. Memphis would strike first 22 minutes into the half with their forward dribbling past the Rice defense and slotting a shot just wide of Pimentel. According to Lee, the Owls have developed a pattern of conceding in the middle of the first half, which may be attributed to mental fatigue. 

“[In the] middle of the first half we were really struggling across tshe board,” Lee said. “Whether we [substitute] at that point or whether it’s fitness with the kids playing longer, we’ve given up goals in the dead middle, 22nd, 23rd, 24th minute maybe in the last three or four games. That’s kind of our target area, we get a little more mental fatigue than physical and [we] gave up a really easy goal.”

A defensive Rice continued to hold off Memphis for the majority of the game, not seeing much offensive action themselves. While Rice counter-attacks were forming toward the end of the game in hopes of a late equalizer, Memphis scored their second with seven minutes remaining, sealing the game at 2-0 for the Tigers and continuing Rice’s winless streak in conference. 

The next two games were on the road, which Lee considered “must-wins” as the regular season winds down. 

They began their trip in Philadelphia facing their fellow Owls at Temple, another AAC team without any conference wins so far in the season. Rice came out strong with shots from graduate forward Ellen Halseth and graduate midfielder Sarah Piper, but both teams ended the first half locked at zero. 

Sophomore defender Carsyn Martz converted in the 60th minute, but her goal was ruled offside. With just ten minutes left in the game Halseth took the ball from the Temple defense and made a run into their box, drawing the defense towards her and passing it off to freshman forward Sophie Zhang in the middle. Zhang’s initial shot bounced off the sidepost, but she was able to convert on the rebound and gave Rice the lead on her first collegiate goal. The game ended 1-0 for Rice, marking their first AAC win, their first win since Aug. 27 and their first clean sheet of the season. 

The Owls then traveled to Birmingham to take on UAB, which, like Temple, was an AAC team without a conference win at that point. Rice conceded an early goal and another later in the first half to trail 2-0 at halftime. 

Rice struck back early in the second half with a goal from junior wingback Natalie Gorji, but the team was unable to equalize and gain any points against UAB, losing 2-1. 

As the season progresses, minor knocks and injuries have become more prevalent, but according to Lee, the team is still developing fitness heading into the last few games of the regular season.

“We got a couple of kids with ankle [injuries], we got a couple of kids still trying to build their fitness,” Lee said. “Hopefully that keeps growing and we’ll finish strong.”

The Owls return home to play against the University of South Florida Thursday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. and Florida Atlantic University Sunday, Oct. 22 at 12 p.m. Both games will be streamed on ESPN+.

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