WKU shows tenacity during opening weekend

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 kicked off its 2019 regular season this weekend with a win against Belmont and a draw against in-state opponent Kentucky, opening up a 200-minute shutout streak that has helped the Lady Toppers start the year on a high note.

WKU (1-0-1) welcomed Belmont (0-2) — predicted to finish sixth in the Ohio Valley Conference — to the WKU Soccer Complex on Thursday. The Lady Toppers saw early success against the Bruins and eventually claimed a 5-0 wire-to-wire win.

All five of WKU’s goals during the contest came from underclassmen, and four different Lady Toppers scored during the match against the Bruins.

The Lady Toppers were led by freshman forward Ansley Cate, who poured in two goals in the first 10 minutes of her regular season debut.

“It’s always pounded in our heads in every meeting and practice, the first and last five [minutes] of every half is your hardest, and that’s when I got my first goals —in the first five [minutes],” Cate said postgame.

Cate made her first appearance as a Lady Topper just days before, when WKU hosted Austin Peay at the WKU Soccer Complex for its last exhibition match on Aug. 18. Cate was sidelined in WKU’s first two exhibition matches against Murray State and Wright State due to an injury.

“Typically, whenever we think someone who is going to make an impact on the game, but they’re com– ing off an injury, we typically want to start them because of the substitution rules,” head coach Jason Neidell said in a postgame interview on Thursday. “So we gave her the start tonight. Obviously she showed us why she deserved that tonight.”

Cate wasn’t the only freshman to score a goal in the season opener against Belmont, as forward Katie Erwin also found the back of the net for the first time as a Lady Topper at the 33:37 mark.

All-Conference USA preseason Women’s Soccer Team member sophomore Ambere Barnett showed her dominance in the midfield, as she assisted on both of Cate’s goals and scored a goal of her own in the 47th minute, which gave the Lady Toppers a 4-0 lead at the time.

With WKU leading Belmont for over 86 minutes of the match, Neidell saw the opportunity to rest some of his starters and get his young players experience.

“We needed to get some of the younger kids some experience, and the scoreline allowed us to do that tonight,” Neidell said postgame. “Obviously you don’t always have the opportunity. The flip side of that is we also got some pretty critical players some rest tonight going into a really big match on Sunday against UK.”

WKU’s 5-0 victory over Belmont topped the program’s previous best season-opening shutout margin of 4-0, which was set in a victory over Grambling State in 2005.

On Sunday, the Lady Toppers traveled to Lexington and faced off against UK (0-0-2) for the first time since 2009.

For just the second time in a decade, WKU and UK managed to draw against one another in a scoreless match that ended in double overtime. The positive result was the program’s first against an SEC opponent since a 0-0 draw against Tennessee on Sept. 15, 2013.

While WKU failed to score a goal for the first time this regular season, the Lady Toppers still had 16 shots, only two of which were on goal. Barnett, who led WKU last season with 58 shots, tallied four shots against the Wildcats.

WKU started the match with high pressure, keeping the Wildcats on their toes early. Just minutes into the match, senior defender Kaylyn Bryant nearly found the back of the net when she found space and fired a shot just wide right of the goal.

The Lady Toppers were aggressive on offense, and WKU finished with nine corner kicks compared to UK’s four. WKU had four corner kicks in the opening 10 minutes of the match.

WKU and the Wildcats battled to a scoreless draw over 110 minutes on Sunday, as the Lady Toppers recorded a clean sheet for its second straight match to begin the season.

The Lady Topper defense has played solid across the back, as the 2019 squad has only given up one goal dating back to their exhibition match against Wright State — a 1-0 loss on Aug. 16.

Redshirt senior goalkeeper Anne-Marie Ulliac recorded five saves on Sunday against UK, playing a full match in goal for WKU. Three of her saves came in the final 15 minutes of regulation, which prevented the Wildcats from knocking in a match-winning goal.

“We felt we played a good match today and certainly created enough chances to get a better result. We need to be more clinical with our chances, and that will come in time,” Neidell said in a postgame press release on Sunday. “Overall, we had a successful opening weekend and have a strong foundation to build on moving forward into the season.”

WKU will be back in action on Friday, as the Lady Toppers travel to Birmingham, Alabama, for a meeting with Samford (0-1-1). The match is set to begin at 7 p.m.

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