Lady Tops to open C-USA play

Tyler Mansfield

After a much anticipated wait, most of the non-conference slate has come to an end and league play has arrived for the WKU women’s soccer team.

The Lady Toppers (4-3-0 overall) kickoff their third season in Conference USA with a midweek contest at Marshall University on Thursday before then participating in their final non-conference matchup Saturday as they meet Belmont University in Nashville.

“I think our kids are excited to start conference [play],” Head Coach Jason Neidell said. “We’re ready to play.”

WKU enters this week’s road matches following a 1-1 outing last week at the WKU Soccer Complex, where the Lady Tops fell to Louisiana State University, 1-0, but defeated Morehead State University, 2-0, to conclude a four-game homestand in which it won three out of the four outings.

The Thundering Herd, who carry a 2-2-2 record into its home contest with WKU, are coming off a shutout victory and a draw.

“They’re a very good team,” Neidell said. “They were a very good team last year –– they finished second in the league last year. They have some really good key pieces returning for them.”

Marshall picked up a 3-0 win against East Tennessee State University back on Sept. 4 and then tied 2-2 in double overtime at Ohio University most recently on Sept. 9.

Marshall, who ranks eighth in C-USA in goals scored at 10, is paced by freshman forward Jordan Sackaris. On the year, Sackaris has found the back of the net four times for eighth total points on 13 shots. With that success, the freshman also holds a .308 shot percentage and has netted twice to win a match.

On the defensive side of things, junior goalkeeper Emily Moreland leads the attack. The versatile net defender has saved 20 shots so far on the season and holds a save percentage of .690 in 541:55 minutes played.

Belmont has not been as successful in 2016. The Bruins won one match while dropping three and drawing in a trio of meetings. However, Belmont has only played one total game on its home field and is 1-0 there while being winless on the road.

“Belmont has always been a good team,” Neidell said. “It’s a bit of a rivalry game with us just being an hour away. It’s a difficult time of the year to play them just because we’re about to conference play and it’s a non-conference game.”

Senior midfielder Meg Howard has scored two goals on nine shots and leads her team in that category. However, on the defensive side of the ball, senior goalkeeper Stephanie Bukovec has put up some impressive numbers.

The experienced net protector, who has seen 498:43 total minutes of action, has saved 29 shots from opponents this year and holds a save percentage of .806, which ranks her fifth in the Ohio Valley Conference.

As for WKU, the Lady Tops have been a goal-scoring machine this season. After netting just 20 total shots in 2015, the club has been able to score 17 goals already on this campaign, which ranks it third in C-USA behind Louisiana Tech University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I mean, you can’t win games without scoring goals,” Neidell said. “We feel really good about the chances we’re creating and converting it into goals. It’s just giving us a lot of confidence. We’re a team that knows we can score.”

Freshman forward Chandler Backes has been responsible for seven of those scores this year, as she leads all of C-USA in not only goals, but also goals per game (1.000), points (15) and points per game (2.14).

On the other side of the ball, junior goalkeeper Allison Leone has had a solid season thus far. The experienced net defender has made 19 saves in seven games played and has a save percentage of .760. Also, Leone ranks seventh in C-USA in total saves.

WKU and Marshall are set to kickoff at 6 p.m. CDT from Hoops Family Field while the Lady Tops and Belmont will meet at 5 p.m. CDT in Nashville.

Reporter Tyler Mansfield can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMansfield.