Oct. 26, 2012
Lauren LaGro scored in the 63rd minute and goalkeeper Amy Czyz posted a complete game shutout to help pace the visiting Rice soccer team to a 1-0 Conference USA road victory over crosstown rival Houston Friday night at UH's Robertson Stadium, an outcome that earned the Owls a share of their first regular season conference co-championship in the 12-year history of the soccer program.
Rice improved to 11-6-3 on the season and finished in a tie for first place in the C-USA regular season standings with Colorado College as both teams closed out the league schedule with identical 8-2-1 conference records. Where the teams finish as regular season co-champions with 25 points (three points per win and one point for a tie), Colorado College earns the No. 1 seed for the upcoming C-USA Tournament by virtue of a 1-0 win over Rice in the head-to-head meeting between the teams on Oct. 21. The C-USA Tournament begins on Wednesday (Oct. 31) in El Paso.
Sharing the top spot in the final conference standings is Rice soccer's highest-ever regular season league finish. The Blue & Gray tied for second place in the Western Athletic Conference in both 2001 and in 2004. The Owls had never been higher than tied for third in the C-USA standings, which was in Rice's very first year in the conference in 2005. After tying for third in the regular season, Rice went on to win the C-USA Tournament Championship and play in the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight year.
Rice soccer tied for eighth in the conference in 2009 and climbed into a tie for sixth a year ago in 2011. In just 2.5 seasons under head coach Nicky Adams, the Owls soared past trends and predicted finishes to land at their highest perch yet. The rise may have surprised even the program's head coach. What was not surprising to coach Adams, however, was just how demanding it would be to complete that final step to the regular season co-championship. The Owls would have to get a win, not a tie but a win, in the rivalry game against crosstown foe Houston - and do so on UH's home field.
"I am really proud of the girls," said coach Adams. "Rice-Houston is always a really tough game. It's always hard to end the season playing your crosstown rival, especially when it means so much. We found a way, we just found a way, and that is huge for our team and our program."
Rice and Houston had finished in a tie in each of the last two seasons, and it looked as though a third was in the works after a scoreless first half. The shots were an austere 3-2 in the Owls' favor, but the Blue & Gray had already taken an eye-opening six corner kicks and had nothing to show for them. In the 63rd minute, the Rice freshman duo of Holly Hargreaves and Lauren Hughes were getting offensive with a give-and-go in front of the Cougar goal. Hughes was brought down with the ball inside the box, and it did not escape the referee. The Owls were awarded a penalty kick, and just needed someone to step up and take the one-time shot.
"I looked right at coach because I knew I wanted to take it," LaGro said. "I've always felt confident taking penalty kicks, and coach knew that. We have a lot of players on this team who are capable of taking them, no question, but coach wanted me to take it. It just so happens that I had been practicing my PK's the last couple of weeks, so I was confident I was going to make it."
An accomplished defender who knows and excels in her role, it's not LaGro's usual responsibility to play into the attacking third and try and score. The Dallas native scored this time, however, with a rocket shot for a 1-0 Rice lead. Some 1,700-plus minutes after the season began back in August, the goal was LaGro's first of the season.
Even with the lead there was still the matter of the final 27 minutes. Houston would not go away at home so easy. LaGro and the defenders, along with Czyz who had made a dynamic save of her own off Katelyn Rhodes' goal-seeking header back in the 51st minute, had preserved the blank slate. The shutout was Rice's eighth of the season.
The Owls walked off the field with the program's first regular season conference title. It was not lost on LaGro and the team's five seniors that Rice had to beat their crosstown rival to complete that final step.
"It's tough to win at Houston," LaGro explained. "The whole thing, everything today, is pretty awesome. Rice soccer has never done this in its history. To be on this team and accomplish it with these girls is amazing. I'm proud of my teammates, especially the seniors.
"The seniors..." LaGro paused, "we all remember our first season. We didn't even make the conference tournament. Now we'll remember this feeling today. There's nothing like it."