Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Nebraska | Purdue
Mid-Majors – Florida Gulf Coast
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
2011 was thankfully punctuated by more winning and less off the pitch drama for Rice. The Owls had endured their fair share of turmoil in 2010, marked most plainly by the stunning mid-season sacking of the program’s matriarch, Chris Huston. After a short stint at city rivals Houston to begin her coaching career, Huston had crossed the divide to start the program at Rice at the turn of the millennium. The Owls took their knocks early but turned into a creditable power in the WAC in a few seasons, culminating with the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance as they claimed an at-large berth in 2004.
It was the equivalent of a conference send off as Rice joined Conference USA in 2005 and made a fantastic start, winning the Conference USA Tournament on home turf in their debut. Life got harder for the Owls in CUSA after that though, with Huston’s team missing out on the postseason in two of the next four years and the club suffering through double digit losses in 2009 for the first time since 2002. There were certainly hopes for improvement in 2010 but little evidence in public that there was turmoil brewing behind the scenes.
The Owls got off to a tepid start in 2010, losing three of their first four, although those three losses were to major conference opponents, to be fair. After a loss to Oklahoma came the shocking mid-week news that Huston had been given an unceremonious boot from the program for devilishly cryptic reasons that were never really elaborated on. In stepped in assistant coach Nicky Adams, given an impromptu promotion to interim head coach. Adams certainly did well in her first few weeks in the hot seat, winning five league matches in a row before the team ran out of gas late, the club finishing fifth and exiting early in the C-USA Tournament.
Still, Adams had shown plenty as the interim head coach, and she was unsurprisingly tabbed for the full position come the offseason. With the hope of some stability and some intriguing talent both returning and coming into the club, Rice entered 2011 as an interesting proposition for those looking beyond UCF and Memphis in the league. After a close opening day loss to Texas Tech, the club reeled off four wins in a row, including one of the club’s most impressive non-conference wins in years, a 1-0 victory over SEC side LSU. The club would pick up another two good results with a draw at BYU and a win against Western Kentucky, and the Owls suddenly found themselves very much a part of the at-large bid equation heading into league play.
The club won three of their first four in C-USA play, with the lone defeat being a close loss to league champs Memphis. But like in the season before, Rice’s legs grew heavy as the weather turned colder. The club would finish up in conference on a horrendous run of just one win in their final seven. The club plummeted to sixth in the league, while their RPI took a similar dip, meaning the Owls were going to need a big time run in the Conference USA Tournament if they wanted to go dancing. Part one was accomplished easily enough with a 2-1 win over state rivals SMU, and the club looked to have gotten lucky, with UTEP advancing to the semi-finals off the back of an upset over Colorado College.
But Rice couldn’t get their offense going, and the match went to penalties after a 0-0 draw. Adams’ side would come out second best, falling 3-1, and wiping out what slim NCAA Tournament hopes they still had. Though they had faded, Rice had still shown they were a club of no small potential during the first half of the campaign. Adams’ side may need a little more seasoning to turn into a title contender, but at the least, the ingredients seem to be there in Houston to make it happen with a little time and luck.
Obviously, Rice has to find a way to put together a complete and consistent season together if they’re to truly reach their potential any time soon. And there can be no doubting how big that potential is after some of the performances of the past few seasons both on the pitch and in the recruiting game. Highly tipped for big things as freshmen, Amy Czyz and Quinney Truong both lived up to the hype as rookies, each earning All-Conference USA Third Team honors and offering a tantalizing glimpse into the future for the Owls. Much of that future could be built around a defense that has been more than solid over the past few seasons, including conceding less than a goal a game last year. Rice wasn’t among the very upper crust of the league in defense last season but were still above average in both goals conceded and goals scored in C-USA games.
Going forward, Rice were very much dependent on the goals of Jessica Howard, with the junior scoring eight goals to lead the club, also being the only Owl to score more than three goals on the year. Adams will be hoping that her young Owls will be able to fly a little higher this season with some increased continuity. This Rice side returns ten of the twelve players who started ten or more games, including everyone that captured a postseason honor, meaning the time to strike for these Owls could be now.
With some uncertainty in goal coming into the new season, Rice had every chance of giving highly touted rookie Czyz a chance to impress right off the bat. She did and then some, winning the starting job out of camp and starting every match for the club, on her way to end of seasons honors mentioned earlier. Czyz was one of the nation’s top freshman keepers last year and looks a crucial part of the team’s stifling defense and future in general as Adams tries to build a contender.
The leading contender for the backup spot is senior Andie Obermeyer, who didn’t see action in her first two years with the club before seeing mop-up duty in three matches last season. The team makes another solid addition in true freshman Kara Dugall, but with Czyz blocking her path to the #1 spot, she’s a prime candidate for a redshirt this season.
Sufficiently solid last season, Rice should feel confident about their chances of further improvement still in defense with the expected returns of all the key pieces from last year’s unit. Heading up the rearguard will be club captain and senior Lauren LaGro, one of many towering Owls, standing at 5’10”. Injured for much of her rookie season, LaGro has since grown into an invaluable defender on the club, starting every match the past two seasons as Rice’s defensive anchor. LaGro is, as you might expect, a threat in the air, along with possessing the ability to whip in free kicks from distance. She figures to be one of the league’s best again and will be vital to Rice’s postseason hopes.
Fellow senior Amy Beger is one of the club’s most versatile players, capable of putting in a shift either up front of in defense and has done both in protracted doses in her career thus far. With five goals and seven assists to her name thus far, Beger’s shown she can be a threat at both ends of the field and should be one of the league’s most dynamic players again wherever she’s used. Adding to the club’s height in the backline is junior Hayley Williams, a starter from day one here, and a player with the potential to become one of the league’s best over the next few years. The big, physical Texan has also proven to be a threat in the air on set pieces, as exhibited with a headed equalizer off a corner kick against SMU last season.
Junior Rachel Petmecky earned a spot in the starting lineup towards the end of her rookie year and has stuck there in large part ever since. Petmecky has the versatility to play in midfield as well and is also a threat with her long throws into the box. The top option off the bench looks to be junior Alexandra Trenary, a solid spot starter who has logged eighteen starts in two seasons thus far. This is a talented and experienced group with plenty of heft, and though there doesn’t seem to be a ton of depth, these Owls could pack one of the meanest defenses in C-USA this season.
The focus in midfield is likely to be on junior Jessica Howard, who looks like the club’s best bet for goals going into 2012. Howard showed glimpses of her talent in 2010, her rookie season being stunted somewhat by injuries, before fully breaking out into the club’s top offensive weapon last season. The junior would score in three in a row near the beginning of the season before recording back-to-back braces against Western Kentucky and UAB. Her scoring form would dry up late though, with just one goal in the team’s final twelve games. A consistently scoring Howard would go a long way in Rice getting to the NCAA Tournament, and her offensive talent could see her deployed up top given some of the club’s losses there.
If Howard’s used as a forward, the leadership role in midfield will likely fall to sophomore Truong, who herself could be used up front if need be. A U20 international with no end of upside, Truong was almost as good as advertised last season showing composure beyond her years as she started all but one game last year. Two goals and three assists were a decent haul but only the tip of the iceberg for a player who could become one of the program’s all-time greats with luck. Another of the club’s captains, Julia Barrow, also looks to be a lock in the midfield as a senior. Not really a threat in front of goal, Barrow nonetheless has the vision, consistency, and experience to be a solid contributor in the midfield for Rice, bringing forty-five starts over the past three years to the table.
Also contending for minutes in the starting lineup will be junior Britton Cartwright and sophomore Lauren Busansky. After a season as a reserve, Cartwright stepped in the starting lineup in midfield for a handful of games last season and is also willing and able in defense. Busansky wasn’t one of the club’s most heralded recruits last season but ended up playing a big role as a rookie, with three goals and two assists despite starting just four games and might end up being an important outlet for offense this season.
Adding depth is sophomore Gabriela Iribarne, one of the team’s top reserves off the bench last season. Iribarne will likely miss the first month of the season though on international duty at the U20 World Cup with Argentina. The club also makes another fine rookie addition in the form of Jasmine Isokpunwu, a quick and tireless player who is capable of playing just about anywhere on the pitch.
Much obviously depends on how Adams decides to line her personnel up, but Howard and Truong are both quality players, while Barrow is a strong veteran presence in the middle as well. Depth is provided by some intriguing youngsters, and this group on the whole could be one of the league’s best units.
By far the most worrisome unit of the Owls this season is the frontline, which is likely due for some remodeling after some major losses going into the new year. Hope Ward wasn’t really a conventional forward in the goalscoring sense, as she netted just four times in four seasons, with three of those goals coming as a junior. Her bread and butter though was setting up her teammates, and she finished her career with twenty-one assists, including five last year, while also finishing with seventy-four starts in her fine career.
Also gone from the starting lineup is Nikki Storness, who started twenty-seven games in her final two seasons with the club after being a reserve for her first two seasons. Storness was hardly a big offensive weapon but offered a strong degree of versatility playing up front or in midfield. Key reserve and occasional spot starter Annie Kadota also departs after scoring twice last season, leaving the club rather short on returning depth up front.
Aiming to pick up some of the slack up front this season is sophomore Ashton Geisendorff, who only scored once last season but made it an important one, against SMU in the C-USA Tournament. Geisendorff started ten matches last season but definitely has the potential to move into the lineup full-time this season. Joining her there could be senior Alex Burton, one of the club’s top reserves her first two seasons before entering the starting lineup eleven times last season. Burton netted three times and has the potential to grow into a solid scorer for the club in her final year with the Owls.
More than likely though, Howard will find herself up top as what looks like the surest thing for Rice in attack this year. The likes of Truong and Beger could join her if the attack still needs to be livened up as well. There’s potential here, but this is clearly the club’s weakest unit and one that will have to improve if Rice is to contend for an NCAA Tournament spot.
Rice has teased everyone with glimpses of being a potential breakout program the past two seasons only to run out of gas come the end of the year. Will it be third time lucky for Adams’ bunch this year? The Owls look to have quality all over the field, with a nice blend of experience and youth and a massive backline to boot. But while Rice’s defense looks like it could be one of the league’s best, questions still remain over the offense. Howard’s a great talent but looks more a combo midfielder-forward than an out and out striker and may not be the goalmouth predator the club needs so desperately.
If Adams can find that predator though, Rice looks to have a pretty good shot at that elusive NCAA Tournament bid. They may not have enough to compete for a league title, but Rice should be dangerous in the C-USA Tournament and could be one of the league’s marquee programs going forward with UCF and Memphis’ pending exits.