The WKU soccer team (6-2-1, 2-0 C-USA) posted a 5-8-4 overall record during the 2018 season, but the Lady Toppers have already surpassed that mark in 2019.
The Lady Toppers — winners of just three Conference USA matches a year ago — moved to 2-0 in conference play by defeating previously unbeaten Louisiana Tech (9-1-1, 1-1 C-USA) 2-1 in double-overtime at the WKU Soccer Complex on Sunday.
With WKU’s victory over LA Tech, the Lady Toppers are now undefeated in conference play for the first time since the 2016 season. WKU is now tied with LA Tech in the all-time series between the two teams, 2-2.
Head coach Jason Neidell said every game in C-USA is a battle.
“This is Conference USA,” Neidell said postgame. “I mean, from top to bottom, it’s a really strong and competitive league, and it seems like every game is a one-goal game. You have to fight and find a way to win. Today, we scored first, and I think we let our guard down. They came back and got one, and we looked really deflated after they scored. It was hard to know at that point what would happen, but I think we gathered ourselves before the overtime started. I think our team showed a lot of resiliency today.”
The Lady Toppers needed an additional 15 minutes to defeat the Lady Techsters. Junior forward Ashley Leonard stepped up and erased a 1-1 tie, netting the game-winning goal on a penalty kick at the 105:26 mark of the second overtime period.
Leonard, who leads WKU with five goals on the season, said she was nervous when she stepped up for her penalty kick attempt, but she put her nerves away and scored to give the Lady Toppers another win in double-overtime.
“Our team motto this year is ‘relentless,’ and we’ve decided to take our team goals game-by-game,” Leonard said postgame. “So, we look at a game and say, ‘We’re going to win this game, and that’s our only focus.’ I think the first couple of games, unfortunately, we weren’t able to capitalize in overtime, and I think we’ve learned from our mistakes there. We have been able to do that recently, because we’ve really put our relentless motto on the field.”
After WKU reached double-overtime again over the weekend, the Lady Toppers have now played five of their first nine matches into the second period of overtime, including a 2-1 home win over Southern Mississippi (5-5, 0-2 C-USA) on Sept. 21.
Double-overtime matches haven’t been especially kind to the Lady Toppers in 2019, but WKU improved to 2-2-1 following its hard-fought win over LA Tech on Sunday.
Coming into Sunday’s matchup between WKU, LA Tech was tied for the national lead and lead C-USA with 38 goals. Fifteen of the Lady Techsters’ 38 goals came earlier this season, when LA Tech defeated Alcorn State (0-8, 0-2 SWAC) 15-0 on Aug. 25.
WKU allowed LA Tech to score only one goal on four attempts, as junior forward Autumn Woodward managed to score her 13th goal of the season. The Lady Techsters couldn’t do much more, as WKU has only allowed six goals total this season.
The Lady Toppers finished with a 3-5-2 record in C-USA play in 2018, earning just 11 points. Through two conference games this season, WKU has already tallied six points and is tied with four other schools for second place in the league standings.
Neidell said he enjoys the fight his team has shown in both of the Lady Toppers’ double-overtime matches to begin C-USA play.
“Every three points in this league is crucial,” Neidell said. “To find a way to win today and as well as last weekend and come away with three points is huge. We left a lot of overtimes in the past couple of years on the table, and this year’s team is finding a way to get it done. Like I said, it’s all about the character that they’re showing on the field, because at some point, it comes down to grit and determination. They’re finding ways to win and I’m super proud of them.”
WKU showed its depth against LA Tech on Sunday, as Neidell played 17 total players. Freshman forward Katie Erwin and redshirt freshman Lucy Lyon all came off the bench and combined for 10 shots, helping the Lady Toppers finish with 24 shots.
The Lady Toppers not only extended their four-game winning streak on Sunday, but WKU also extended its streak of totaling 20 or more shots in a contest.
Redshirt sophomore midfielder Deven Jackson was added to the starting lineup two weeks ago. Since then, WKU has opened up a four-game winning streak and hasn’t dropped a game since a 1-0 loss to Power 5 Mississippi (7-2-2, 1-0-2 SEC) on Sept. 5.
Since joining the starting lineup, Jackson has scored three goals and helped the Lady Toppers rank 14th nationally in shots per game.
Neidell believes Jackson is another option the Lady Toppers can rely on during C-USA play.
“Deven [Jackson] brings another dimension to our midfield,” Neidell said. “She is such a composed player and has the ability to pick people out and find balls that get us in between the other teams’ defense and create. Obviously, it’s huge adding her. She’s getting on the stat sheet. She’s had several goals now, and I think she has a few assists. But she’s a difference maker for us, so it’s obviously an important piece to our puzzle.”
Jackson scored her third goal of the season in WKU’s win against LA Tech, as she netted a right-footed shot at the 69:08 mark. The midfielder previously scored two goals in her first start against Southern Illinois (4-7-1) on Sept. 13.
The Auckland, New Zealand, native was sidelined for all of the 2018 season after injuring her hip during the preseason, but Jackson said she’s come back with a new level of confidence in 2019.
“After being out for so long, I had no other option than to come out here and play,” Jackson said postgame. “I can’t hide, and that’s helped me in my confidence rather than backing down and being scared.”
With Jackson starting in the midfield, Barnett has moved to the forward position, and senior forward Chandler Backes has been forced to come off the bench.
Backes — who currently sits at eighth place on WKU’s all-time goalscoring list with 19 career goals — only played 13 total minutes on Sunday against the Lady Techsters. The marquee player has struggled so far in 2019, scoring just one goal for WKU.
Following the team’s 2-0 start to conference play, WKU will continue C-USA play on Thursday against Charlotte (6-3, 1-1 C-USA) at the WKU Soccer Complex.
Charlotte currently leads the all-time series over WKU, 2-1-1.
The two programs most recently met in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 28, 2018, when the 49ers defeated the Lady Toppers 2-1.
Neidell said he’s challenging his team to improve mentally against Charlotte.
“We had a lot of mental mistakes, especially as we got tired,” Neidell said. “We have to be a little bit sharper focus upstairs.”
Kickoff between the Lady Toppers and the 49ers is set for 7 p.m.
Reporter Elliott Wells can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow Elliott on Twitter at @ewells5.