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Resuming the Ascension

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While addressing an alert gathering of freshmen student-athletes and faculty members late Tuesday morning at Wiess Commons, women's soccer coach Chris Huston announced that she will open her 10th season at Rice when the Owls host Baylor on Aug 21 at the Track/Soccer Stadium.

That passing revelation immediately brought two items to mind: the sheer amazement that a decade has passed since Huston built the Owls' soccer program from scratch, and that three full seasons have elapsed since the halcyon days when the Owls enjoyed consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament.

One year after earning their first NCAA berth in their fourth season, the Owls won the 2005 Conference USA tournament and clinched their second consecutive NCAA bid. The charismatic Huston had not only cemented her status as a rising member of her profession, but Rice appeared to have ascended to the cusp of revealing its untapped potential as a program. But in an instant, courtesy of a ravaging spate of injuries the following season, that momentum was stifled.

"They weren't the kind of injures that could only set us back that one year," Huston said of the dozen surgeries that plagued the Owls in 2006. "It definitely had a carryover effect into the next year. Having one bad rash of injuries like we did set us back two years rather than just the one year."

What drastic measures were Huston led to undertake in 2006? The Owls were so bereft of healthy bodies that senior Laura Barber was given clearance to participate in the season finale against the Houston Cougars despite the fact that she was without an ACL in her left knee. Had Barber not been made available for her swan song, the Owls would not have had enough players to field a team.

The rash of maladies sent the program into a downward spiral. Forced to redshirt several players at a time threw Huston's ability to manage scholarship money into flux. Classification balance within the roster was compromised, and while Huston managed to steer the Owls to winning seasons in each of the past three campaigns (33-22-3 overall), Rice was just 14-14-1 in league play over that span. Senior midfielder Shelley Wong was the only Rice player named to C-USA's '09 preseason team by the league's coaches, a byproduct of the inconsistency that undermined the program Huston seemingly had on the brink of extraordinary success in '05.

"Doctor (Tom) Clanton would call me at one in the morning after another kid had torn her ACL and ask, 'Have you ever been through something like this in your years of coaching?'" Huston said. "We were 9-0-1 and off to the best start in school history and had just beat No. 8 Texas, and then that very next week we lost three girls to ACL (injuries). It just went downhill from there."

Huston finally sees a light at the end of the tunnel. The Owls lost just three players from last season (only one - sophomore forward/defender Amy Beger - due to injury) and will feature seven seniors. Huston signed six players ranging from 5-6 to 5-11, a move that, combined with a 2010 collection of commitments even more physically imposing, should silence whispers that the Owls' rosters feature players too small to compete with Texas' top programs.

And Huston has taken steps to solve the mystery that was the Owls' inconsistency last season. For the first time she had the team open fall camp at a remote location, spending four days and three nights training at The John Cooper School and lodging at The Woodlands Conference Center. Robert Andrews, a sports psychologist, has taken the Owls through team-building exercises and has another scheduled visit just prior to the start of the season. This weekend the team will travel to College Station to participate in a ropes course that is aimed to develop a bond as strong as the one that led less talented squads to the NCAAs.

Having spent three seasons in the wilderness, Huston acknowledges that the time has come to resume the course set when she laid the foundation for her program a decade ago. In her mind those NCAA berths were the standard the Owls should set for every season, and after being forced on a divergent path, the Owls are hoping they are pointed in the right direction.
 
"If you look at this year's seniors, this group has been through a lot," Huston said. "This group came in the year we had the rash of injuries, and then they had the aftermath the following year. Of course the locker rooms were taken away and the field is (undergoing construction) - this group has been through so much that everyone is hungry for the success that was the reason they were coming here. This is that group's chance to actually attain these things they were so eager to come in and do right away their freshman year."

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