It would be great if the Rice soccer team could start the 2007 season without the bull's-eye opponents made it wear last year. Head coach Chris Huston is anxious to get the season off to a flying start, but the Owls are so talented and promising that it's likely the team is already on the opponent's radar.
Coach Huston, now in her seventh season at the helm of the program, has a total of 14 letterwinners (including six starters) back from last season's team that at one point was ranked among the country's best teams. That alone would jump off an opponent's scouting report, but there's more.
Huston signed the top recruiting class in Conference USA (according to SoccerBuzz.com), giving the Owls the right mix of polished veterans and talented newcomers. If the team can avoid last year's injury bug that sidelined as many as six players during the second half of the season, Rice could very well be a force.
"A team's helath is always a part of any season, but injuries really played a role for us last year," Huston said. "If we are healthy this year, I know the team is capable of doing something special."
There's talent in every third of the field, but the place to start is up front. Forwards Clory Martin and Erin Scott helped the Owls' offense lead C-USA in shots per game (19.8), finish second in corner kicks (5.9) and third in goals per game (2.2). Mix in a healthy Caitlin Robbins and the Owls have three scoring options.
Clory Martin is one of the fastest players on the team with a nose for the goal. She's third on Rice's career list for goals scored (15) with a chance to break the school record (22). When she's not scoring the goals, Martin uses her tremendous speed to create offensive opportunities around her. The Austin native shares the Rice record for career assists (15) and is second on the school lists for points (45), shots (137) and shots-on-goal (59).
Opponents focused on the veteran Martin a year ago, but perhaps not Scott so much in the early going. That gamble proved to be a fatal mistake. Scott burst onto the Division I scene as a true freshman and finished among the C-USA leaders in goals (8), points (19), shots (71), shots per game (3.9) and shots-on-goal (33). Though just a rookie, Scott established new Rice single season records for shots and shots-on-goal. There's every reason to expect even more production now that she has a year of experience.
The eye-opening aspect for the offense is that Rice looks to have even more firepower this year with the return of Robbins, an All-Central Region honoree to the lineup. Robbins started the first four games of 2006 to help the Owls begin the season with a 3-0-1 record. She was sidelined almost the rest of the way, but if her 2005 season is any indication the opponents have a lot to contain. The Houston native and standout from nearby Lamar High School constantly pressured defenses on the way to setting the school single-season record for goals (14). Robbins also helped lead the Owls to the 2005 C-USA title and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Another two veterans, senior Katelyn Ferguson and sophomore Jessica Ross can help up front as well. Ferguson, who once scored three goals in a single game, is fighting back from an injury. Ross played in eight games as a rookie in 2006.
"We're returning Clory, Caitlin and Erin and it could be a great year for all three of them," Huston said. "Caitlin has been working hard this summer. Erin did a great job dealing with a nagging injury last year. We know what Clory can do, and we also plan on giving some freshmen a look. It's exciting to have different options and abilities within an offensive situation."
There may be a new look to the Rice midfield in 2007, but there's also a lot of familiarity returning to go with a host of highly regarded newcomers. The competition for starting spots and playing time will elevate the team. It also gives Coach Huston a lot of options to rotate various combinations of players. The list of returnees consist of seniors Samantha Conn and Traci Fraser, junior Christine Petric and sophomore Shelley Wong.
Conn is an outstanding player coming back from an injury suffered during the second half of last season. The Owls jumped out to an 8-0-1 start with Conn playing, but the team went 3-6-0 when she was sidelined. By blending excellent endurance, strength, and composure with some uncanny offensive instincts, the former Brazoswood star is among the Rice career leaders for goals, shots, and points. The more Conn plays, the better Rice will be.
Petric has fought through some nagging injuries the last few years and is anxious to show what she can do playing a full season at full speed. Petric played in 15 games with nine starts, including seven consecutive starts during one stretch. She showed an ability to make difficult situations seem effortless, and the Colleyville native is a prime candidate to make an even bigger impact this season.
A year ago freshman Stephanie Crain played in the midfield, but the newcomer also was called for duty up front as a forward. Crain is out for the 2007 season with an injury. Two other freshmen, Elizabeth Nesbit and Korey Taylor, could have similar dual roles as either midfielders and/or forwards. Their versatility is a bonus for the team and can help them garner more playing time.
Three other newcomers, freshmen Kate Edwards, Beth England and Ashley Gowda, will push the returning players and each other for game action. All are experienced club and high school players with a host of honors. It's easy to see why the Owls have a wealth of depth and talent in the midfield. The trio will get plenty of chances to shine in Huston's system.
"There is no doubt that Samantha's return is big," Huston said. "We know Shelly can do a really good job for us. I can see more than one combination of players working for us and creating the kind of tempo that it will take for us to be successful at this level."
Last season the Owls' allowed the second-fewest goals (18) in C-USA and the back line allowed just 10.4 shots per game, the second-best total in the league. Senior Beth Martin, an All-Region and All-Conference USA selection with 59 games played in her collegiate career, leads a Rice group that has equal parts experience and youth. With no shortage of speed or tenacity, Martin frustrates opponents and rarely comes out of a game.
Sophomore defender Kellen Schugart was one of only two players on the squad to start all 18 games last season. Not only does the Kingwood native have solid one-on-one skills and endurance, she is an attacking presence out of the back line.
Fellow sophomore Katelyn Ostendorf also had a successful Division I debut, playing in each of the first 15 games with 10 starts. Ostendorf missed the last few weeks due to an injury, but showed she was versatile enough to play different positions. Over the summer, she helped lead her club team from Carmel, Ind., to the national championship.
Senior defender Lindsay Jaggers recorded career-highs in games and starts last season. She'll continue to have a role and make a contribution. Keep an eye on the freshman duo of Jordan Holloway and Ariel Rogers. Both are highly regarded newcomers looking to make an impact and continue the Owls' excellent reputation for defensive play.
"Beth and Kellen did a great job last year, and (Ostendorf) had a great summer winning the national championship for her club," Huston said. "I think this year I can really see her finding a home on our back line. We'll be young there, so we need to work together to develop and grow in order to play like we need to play."
All eyes are on the Rice goalkeepers this season. There are two true freshman battling for playing time and the starting honor. Meghan Erkel, of Granite Bay, Calif., and Catherine Fitzsimmons of Ann Arbor, Mich., have similar accolades both from the club and high school ranks. The competition between the rookies could be intense, but ultimately will make the team better at such a key position. Either way, it's significant that there won't be much, if any, drop-off between the keeper candidates.
"Our goalkeeper is wide-open," Huston added. "These two new keepers may be the most athletic we've ever had. It will create a real competitive environment for practices that will carry over into games."