Rice downs WKU in conference championship quarterfinals, 1-0

Sophomore forward Iris Dunn battles University of Tennessee’s Carlyn Baldwin (11), Susan Ferguson (20), and Cheyenne Spade (6) for possession of the ball during the first half of WKU’s Sept. 5 match. The Lady Hilltoppers lost 2-0 to the Lady Volunteers. Brandon Carter/HERALD

John Reecer

The Lady Toppers’ season came to a close on Wednesday as No. 2-seeded Rice used an early score to defeat No. 7-seed WKU by a score of 1-0 in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA Women’s Soccer Championship.

The defeat marks the end of WKU’s inaugural season in the league that yielded a 10-8 overall record with a 5-5 clip in league play.   

WKU came out firing in the first half with six shots in the game’s first nine minutes. The early barrage of shots from the Lady Toppers included a near miss just off the crossbar from junior defender Alanna Clancey.

“We had talked about how we came out slow in some of our previous matches,” Head Coach Jason Neidell said. “Today we came out at a blistering pace, and we played very well from start to finish.”

Despite the early aggression, Rice regained momentum and managed to score in the 16th minute of the match off the foot of the Conference USA Player of the Year, junior forward Lauren Hughes. From that point, Rice was able to control the game for the remainder of the first half with dominant possession of the ball.

“Rice really did control the game after they scored,” Neidell said. “However, we continued to take the game to them and we limited their scoring opportunities.”

Toward the end of the first half, WKU, again, fired off would-be game-tying goals with back-to-back corner kicks in the 41st minute, but both chances failed.

In the second half, Rice managed to keep its endless energy and ball control that they featured in the first half, which resulted in two quick shots on goal. Rice finished with a 15-12 shot advantage and held a 7-4 corner kick lead.

After Rice’s quick start at the beginning of the second half, the rest of the game became a defensive battle for possession, which restricted scoring opportunities for both teams.  

In the closing seconds of the game, the Lady Toppers had one last chance to score as freshman midfielder Nahyo Jalajel set up a header from senior midfielder Allie Auscherman. However, Rice senior goalkeeper Amy Czyz managed to come up with the crucial left corner save to seal the win for the Owls.

One bright spot for the Lady Toppers proved to be freshman goalkeeper Allison Leone. She posted five saves, despite 15 shots from Rice. Leone was named to the conference’s all-freshman team earlier in the week.

“Her award is great for the future of this  very young team,” Neidell said. “She stepped up and played great today and played great in such a big-time atmosphere.”

The Lady Toppers’ season is now over, but according to Neidell, the team’s play against Rice is a slight glimpse of what the future holds for the WKU soccer program.  

“I am thrilled with how our young team did in our first season in a conference that was way more competitive than what we have previously seen,” Neidell said. “The future is certainly bright for our program.”