MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Junior forward Nia Stallings assisted on the first goal of the game and then scored the match-winner with less than five minutes left in regulation to help lift the visiting Rice soccer team to a 2-1 Conference USA road victory over Middle Tennessee Friday night in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
With the team’s fourth-consecutive win the Owls improved to 8-4-1 overall and 5-2-0 against the league. Rice’s 15 points from the five C-USA wins has forced a three-way tie with North Texas and Western Kentucky atop the conference standings. The Owls now have just three games remaining in the regular season schedule, but the first two of which are at home next weekend after thriving in an unusually rugged road stretch.
“This is a great win,” said Rice head soccer coach Nicky Adams. “It was another conference road match. They are always a challenge, and this was in fact our third (C-USA road game) in a row. We have been able to win each one. They have all been big, and I’m very pleased at how the team has responded when we all knew this was going to be a challenging part in our schedule.
Rice was on the offensive early. In the 19th minute Stallings served a pass from the right side over to sophomore Darcy Mickalow. Mickalow volleyed a shot attempt to the back of the opposing net for a 1-0 advantage.
The Owls would have loved to have been able to hold Middle Tennessee scoreless at the intermission, but in front of their home fans the Blue Raiders were able to find the equalizer in the 39th minute. MT’s Kerri Cook tallied her fourth goal of the season made it 1-1
Rice turned up the offensive pressure in the second period to the tune of a 12-0 advantage in shots and a 7-0 margin corner kicks, but didn’t have anything to show for the effort on the scoreboard. Finally, in the 86th minute sophomore Annie Walker blasted away on a shot attempt that Middle Tennessee saved, but was not able to control. Stallings alertly followed-up the deflection with a shot and goal of her own for her fourth score of the season.
“Nia was great again,” coach Adams said. “She’s playing so well and helping us win. Annie Walker may have played her best match of the season tonight. She played hard, but she also played smart and that really started things for us again and again during the match.
“The offense did such a good job of working to get forward,” Adams explained. “That gave us so many chances. We didn’t always finish our chances tonight like we would have liked, and we were called offside a couple of times, but the team deserved to win for how well they played and how hard they worked heading into this match.”
The Owls’ soccer team has passed a series of tests, but at a place like Rice challenging tests are the norm. Next weekend it could be more of the same soccer mid-terms. The Blue & Gray are back home, finally, to host Old Dominion and Charlotte teams that have winning ways of their own. Coach Adams knows full-well what it takes to stay at the head of the class.
“Tonight we played with urgency and intensity, and we need to keep that up,” Adams said. “We have a lot of important soccer left, including two games at home, so there is a lot to play for.”