Nov. 14, 2014
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AUSTIN - The Rice soccer team's sensational 2014 season has come to an end with a 3-0 road loss at the hands of the Texas Longhorns in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Friday evening in Austin.
The Owls were without leading goal-scorer and Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year Lauren Hughes, who injured her lower leg earlier in the week. Hughes, who had the C-USA leading and Rice record-tying 14 goals, could only cheer from the sidelines with her foot in a medical boot during the team's biggest game in almost a decade (when the Blue & Gray was last in the NCAA Tournament).
Head coach Nicky Adams has spent a good part of her life in soccer, ranging from four years as the Owls head coach to playing professionally, to earning All-America honors while in college. She's well aware that situations like this are part of the game.
"Lauren Hughes is arguably one of the best players on our team, and what she provides in the final third for us is something very special," coach Adams said in the NCAA's postgame press conference. "I think that was a big blow to our team, especially in the final third.
"I'm proud of [Gabriela Iribarne] to step up in her spot and play up front for us and honestly, she left every ounce of her on the field," coach Adams added. "I couldn't have asked for more. Horrible loss to lose [Lauren], she's a special, special player. Glad we get for her senior season. When you score in seven-straight games for our team and you don't have her, we had to change some stuff up."
A forced change was particularly hard as Rice had entered the game playing some its best soccer - not just of the season but in years. The Owls were on a school record-tying seven-game win-streak that was the program's best stretch of games since 2003. With Hughes helping lead the way in the offensive third, the Owls had outscored opponents by total of 43-13. The junior from Ottawa, Ontario, was among the Top 30 Division I players in the nation for goals (14) and points 35). She was an integral part of a Rice attack that averaged 8.1 corner kicks per game and maintained a 2-to-1 margin over opponents in that category.
Athletic Texas got offensive and opened the scoring in the first half. In the game's 29th minute the Owls had trouble clearing the ball from the right side. Texas' Kelsey Shimmick played the ball to the middle, where it deflected off Cierra Grubbs. Longhorn midfielder Sharis Lachappelle finished from nine yards out for a 1-0 UT lead.
It was the first score the Owls had allowed in more than four-consecutive games. Rice was offside four times in the first half, but had one dramatic opportunity where freshman Aliza Wolfe had a shot attempt on a keeper-less Texas goal in the 41st minute. Two Longhorn defenders alertly cleared away the attempt for the same 1-0 advantage at the intermission.
Texas quickly extended the margin in the second half. In the 48th minute, freshman Olivia Brook collected a Whitney Jaynes cross and found the back of the net to give Texas the insurance tally. The Horns added a third goal in the 66th minute on a long shot by Julia Dyche.
The Blue & Gray went on to finish the contest with eight shots. Owl senior goalkeeper Amy Czyz registered a total of three saves.
Rice has officially closed out its season at 14-4-3. The 14 victories tied the school record for the most wins in program history. The team also registered its lowest loss total in school history and a closer look at the losses is in order. Three of the losses were by a single goal scored in overtime.
The Owls' sensational season included winning the C-USA Tournament for the first time in the program's history. No less than eight Rice players earned all-conference honors and another two were named to the league's All-Academic team. As many as seven starters are expected to return to the lineup next season.
"Obviously I'm disappointed in the way we played today," coach Adams surmised. "(Overall) it was a good season. "We have to be proud of what we accomplished."