Lady Tops take on 2014 champions to begin conference play

WKU midfielder Hannah Chua (2) moves the ball downfield as Memphis University defender Olivia Gauthier (16) challenges her during the second half of the Lady Toppers’ 2-1 win Friday night at the WKU Soccer Complex. Chua scored from outside the box late in the match to give the Lady Tops the win. Gabriel Scarlett/HERALD

Hunter Frint

The Lady Toppers soccer team will kick off Conference USA play at home this weekend against Rice (4-3-1) on Friday and Louisiana Tech (7-3-0) on Sunday.

The first two conference games will provide WKU (4-2-2) an opportunity to begin conference play on its home field, where it is 2-1-1 this season and has not lost since the opening weekend against Miami (Ohio) over a month ago. 

The Lady Toppers also enter conference play riding a five-game undefeated streak comprised of three wins and two draws, yet they carry a goal differential of -2 with 11 goals scored but 13 goals conceded.  

After the Lady Tops gave up nine goals in their first three games against Tennessee-Martin (1), Miami (Ohio) (4) and LSU (4), Head Coach Jason Neidell knew major defensive adjustments needed to be made.  

In response to Neidell’s emphasis on defensive soundness, the Lady Toppers buckled down and gave up four goals in the next five games, including clean sheets against Stephen F. Austin and Mercer that were both earned away from home.  

The response was exactly what Neidell wanted to see from his team over the course of a nonconference slate, which he said was designed to be challenging on purpose to prepare for conference play. He cited games against Memphis and LSU, among others, as examples of high-caliber competition.

“I don’t know that we’ll see a team the rest of the season that’s more athletic than what Memphis posed for us,” Neidell said. 

Going into last weekend’s matchup, the Lady Toppers were 0-3 all-time against Memphis. But this time around, in WKU’s final nonconference contest, the Lady Toppers came up with a 2-1 win. 

Neidell looks to carry momentum from that game into this weekend, where two challenging games wait on the horizon. 

“Rice won the conference tournament last year. We’ve seen some video; they’re a formidable opponent,” Neidell said. 

Yet the head coach — now in his 15th year at the helm of Lady Toppers soccer, where he’s been head coach since the program’s inception — knows the win against Memphis will not, on its own, be enough to claim a win against Rice. 

“They pose some different challenges than Memphis,” Neidell said. “They’ve got a couple of players that are big time college soccer players.” 

Rice went into the tournament last year as the No. 2 seed yet claimed a 2-1 win in the championship match over North Texas. 

Along with Rice’s championship season, its player Quinny Truong, then a senior, was named the 2014 C-USA Midfielder of the Year with an all-around complete season competing as a forward, midfielder and defender. 

Returning this season is 2014 C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Lauren Hughes as a senior forward for Rice. 

Hughes ranks fourth in the C-USA in shots with 37 and is tied for eighth with four goals, a mark also held by two Lady Toppers: junior forward Iris Dunn and  sophomore attacking midfielder Hannah Chua. 

Additionally, Owls’ Head Coach Nicky Adams was awarded 2014 Coach of the year after mounting a title-winning campaign and a 14-4-3 overall record. 

While the Lady Toppers haven’t been bested since Aug. 28 against LSU in Baton Rouge, Rice comes into the contest off a 2-0 loss to Miami (Ohio), a team the Lady Toppers lost to 4-0. 

The Lady Toppers’ second opponent of the weekend, La. Tech, has 10 nonconference games under its belt and will have played its first league contest against Old Dominion (2-7). 

The Bulldogs recently won their last nonconference game against Jackson State 2-0. 

 “La. Tech is another quality opponent who just works hard and knows how to win,” said Neidell of a team that has compiled five wins in its last six games.  

La. Tech is also racking up C-USA Player of the Week Awards. 

So far this season, three Bulldogs have received the award: senior defenders Donya Salomon-Ali and Taylor Douglas as well as freshman forward Mylene Roy-Quellet.

Neidell hopes the team can build on its accomplishments during the last five games to compete with the same intensity as it enters conference play.

The game against Rice is set for first touch at 6 p.m. on Friday while first touch against La. Tech set for 1 p.m. Sunday at the WKU Soccer Complex.

Ed. note: A previous version of this story contained a misspelling of Jason Neidell’s last name on one reference. This error has been corrected. The Herald regrets the error.