Lineup change helps Lady Toppers get first conference wins

WKU sophomore Victoria Mayo (3) heads the ball as she is defended by UTEP junior defender Kori Lewis (14) during a Lady Topper 4-3 victory game against University of Texas at El Paso on Sunday, October 7, at WKU Soccer Complex.

Tyler Eaton

WKU soccer is now riding back-to-back wins for the first time in over a year.

The Lady Toppers returned home from a five-game road trip reeling from a 2-7-2 start, including losses in each of their first four conference matches. Thanks to some tweaks to the starting 11, WKU picked up its first two Conference USA wins of the season in dominant fashion, starting a four-game homestand 2-0.

In Friday’s game against Florida International, coach Jason Neidell moved sophomore Ashley Leonard into the starting lineup for WKU’s ninth all-time leading scorer, Chandler Backes. It was the first start of Leonard’s career.

“We just really wanted to shake up the starting lineup,” Neidell said. “Some people have been working hard and deserve the opportunity. It’s kids working for their opportunity and then seizing it.”

Leonard seized her opportunity and then some, netting WKU’s first hat trick since 2010 for her first three goals of the season. Senior midfielder Sarah Gorham added her second goal of the season as well, and the Lady Toppers got their first conference win of the season with a 4-0 shutout over FIU.

“We had nothing to lose, honestly,” Leonard said. “We’ve been waiting for a spark, and on our home turf, we were just like, ‘We’ve had enough of this.’”

Leonard’s addition to the starting lineup wasn’t the only change made by Neidell. Freshman sensation Ambere Barnett was moved to the head of the Lady Toppers’ attack.

“Our midfield has been really strong, but we haven’t been getting what we want after that,” Neidell said. “It’s about not just Ambere, but everyone just having those little sparks.”

Barnett helped the WKU attack as a whole find its spark, assisting on two goals in the Texas-El Paso match. She played a key role in Sunday’s match against UTEP, netting two goals and two more assists in a 4-3 win for the Lady Toppers.

“We came together as a team and visualized what we wanted to do before the game,” Barnett said. “We just knew that we needed to get that win.”

The Lady Toppers were up 3-0 at the half against UTEP thanks to another goal form Gorham. She scored the deciding goal in the second half to give WKU its second conference win of the season.

“We created some good chances in the first half,” Neidell said. “We knew the second half was going to be tough.”

With the back-to-back wins over the weekend, the Lady Toppers are now 4-7-2 on the season, improving their C-USA mark to 2-4.

Despite the rough start to the season, Neidell believes his team is close to turning the corner, and these two wins may just do the trick.

“Our team motto this year is ‘Rise Up,’” Neidell said. “It’s about those little sparks. If somebody has a little spark, then someone else has one, and pretty soon you’ve got a fire going.”

Reporter Tyler Eaton can be reached at 270-745-2691 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @at_eaton.