Resiliency on the road: WKU soccer escapes early road trip above .500

WKU midfielder Ambere Barnett (15) dribbles the ball upfield agents Belmont during the season opener at the WKU Soccer Complex on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Elliott Wells

The WKU soccer team capped off its early three-game road trip on Sunday evening with a 1-0 win against Middle Tennessee (3-1). The win came just two days after the Lady Toppers lost their first match of the season against Samford (1-1-2) in a 3-2 double-overtime decision.

“I’m just really proud of our kids,” head coach Jason Neidell said in a postgame press release. “We really needed a hard-fought, gritty win against a good team. After letting Friday’s match slip through our fingertips, our kids found a way tonight. It says a lot about this team’s mentality and will to win.”

The Lady Toppers gave up a total of five corner kicks on Friday evening against Samford, two of which resulted in a goal for the Bulldogs. Samford’s final corner kick of the night deflected in the box and found junior defender Grace Sommi for the game-winning goal.


WKU (2-1-1) allowed its only three goals of the season against the Bulldogs. The Lady Toppers had not given up a goal all year until freshman defender Kylie Gazza scored off a corner kick. Gazza’s goal in the 48th minute was the first of her career and Samford’s first of the season.

Although WKU didn’t have a shot in the opening 10 minutes of play, the Lady Toppers were first to get on the scoreboard when senior forward Chandler Backes gave WKU an early 1-0 lead at the 16:32 mark.

Sophomore midfielder Ambere Barnett was rewarded with her third assist of the season by placing a through ball into open space, finding Backes at the top of the box, where she dribbled around Samford goal- keeper Morgan McAslan and scored with her right foot.

Backes’ goal was the 19th of her career and moved her into sole possession of eighth place on WKU’s all-time goalscoring chart.

The Lady Toppers held a 1-0 lead for the remainder of the first half, but the Bulldogs came out of the halftime break and scored an equalizing goal just three minutes into the second half.

WKU struck once more in the 68th minute to increase its lead to 2-1. Barnett again played a long ball into Samford’s defense where the ball deflected and found junior forward Ashley Leonard’s right foot. Leonard beat McAslan with her right foot, resulting in her first goal of the season.

Through four matches played, Barnett has assisted on four of WKU’s eight goals so far.

“She is such a phenomenal player,” Neidell said about Barnett after the season opener, “She reads the game so well, she puts herself into great places on the field. We always say, ‘It’s so easy to play with Ambere because she makes the game look easy and brings others into the game,’ and it’s not just about her getting chances, but about her trying to bring other players into the game, and she does that so well.”

Barnett’s second assist against Samford marked the second time this season where she had two assists in a match. Her first two-assist game was against Belmont.

The Bulldogs equaled the score to two goals apiece just a couple of minutes after the Lady Toppers regained a 2-1 lead. Sophomore midfielder Audrey Kleiman hit a well-struck ball that was out of goalkeeper Anne-Marie Ulliac’s reach.

Both teams had their chances in the overtime periods, but neither could score. WKU appeared set to claim its second straight draw, but Sommi’s goal in the final 30 seconds lifted the Bulldogs to their first win of the season over the Lady Toppers in heartbreaking fashion.

The Bulldogs outshot the Lady Toppers 18-15, as five Samford players had at least two shots. The game marked the first time in 2019 that the Lady Toppers had been outshot in a contest.

The Lady Toppers bounced back on Sunday evening, as they defeated MTSU — the squad picked to finish fifth in the Conference USA preseason poll. WKU’s 1-0 victory marked the first time since 2011 that WKU had beaten the Blue Raiders in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

WKU and MTSU met in a rare non-conference matchup due to C-USA scheduling conflicts. The two sides did not meet last season and were not scheduled to play in 2019, but the two coaching staffs agreed to play Sunday’s match in lieu of a conference battle.

The Lady Toppers were led by Leonard, who found the back of the net for her second goal of the weekend. Leonard’s goal on Sunday came during the 33rd minute off an assist from freshman forward Ansley Cate. Cate’s assist marked her first of the season.

WKU’s resilient defense has been the highlight for most of its young season, and that remained true against MTSU, as the Lady Toppers have now shutout three of their first four opponents.

Going into the match, the Blue Raiders had scored at least four goals in three consecutive matches. WKU was the first squad to successfully shut down MTSU this season.

The Lady Toppers had the challenge of stopping junior forward Peyton DePriest, who was named in August as C-USA’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year and had already poured in five goals in three matches for the Blue Raiders.

WKU executed its gameplan of stopping DePriest, as she only finished with one shot.

WKU was outshot in back-to-back matches this weekend, as MTSU outshot the Lady Toppers 19-10. WKU had more shots on goal with five compared to MTSU’s four. The Blue Raiders were led by senior midfielder Amber Hoot, who had five shots in the loss to WKU.

After recording four shots on Sunday, Barnett has finished with the most shots in each contest for WKU. In all four matches, Barnett has finished with at least four shots and she has already produced 17 shots so far this season.

Ulliac and MTSU senior goalkeeper Sydney Chalcraft each ended the match with four saves.

WKU’s win against the Blue Raiders also moved the Lady Toppers to the most wins in the all-time series between the two rival programs at 7-6-6.

The Lady Toppers will look to win back-to-back matches for the first time this season on Thursday when they welcome Mississippi to the WKU Soccer Complex at 7 p.m.

The last meeting between WKU and Ole Miss in Bowling Green was on Aug. 22, 2008, when the Lady Toppers defeated the Rebels 2-1 in an overtime victory at home.

Reporter Elliott Wells can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Elliott on Twitter at @ewells5.