El Paso, TX — The UTEP soccer team will kick off its 10-game Conference USA slate at home this weekend by playing host to defending league co-champion Rice (7 p.m. MT Friday) & Southern Miss (12 p.m. MT Friday). The Miners (7-2-1) set a school record by winning four straight road matches to close out non-conference action with plenty of momentum but their focus is strictly on the match-ups against the Owls (2-3-2) and the Lady Eagles (6-2-2).
There are promotions a plenty for the weekend, with “Fiesta Night,” “Greek Night” & “Athletes Supporting Athletes” set for the match-up against Rice. All fans who wear a sombrero will get in free & there will be a post-contest autograph session. The popular “Orange Out Day” is slated for Sunday. Anyone who wears orange will receive free admission, and there will be a free post-match kid’s clinic.
The Miners are 7-2-3 in league openers under head coach Kevin Cross, including 5-2-1 since joining Conference USA in 2005. Cross’ charges are also 10-2 in the conference home opener, aided by a mark of 6-1 within C-USA. Only in 2001 & 2008 did UTEP fall short in its initial home league match.
“We start our second and most important part of our season this Friday with our Conference USA opener versus Rice,” Cross said. “We are very fortunate to have this game at home, as our fans give us a big boost. Rice is an excellent program. They were Conference USA Champions last year, so we have a very difficult game. On Sunday, we are playing against Southern Miss which has been excellent in non-conference play. We will have to be at our very best in order to win these games this weekend. We will be ready as the team has shown incredible belief and character this season during non-conference play.”
The Miners, who sport the longest active unbeaten streak in C-USA, have shown a good mix of offensive and defensive prowess. They sport at +7 goal differential (17-10) while also enjoying advantages in shots (136-69), shots on goal (63-40) and corner kicks (51-32).
UTEP has been resilient, with a mark of 3-1-0 on the year when the opposition scores first. It also has shown a flair for the dramatic, with the match-winning goal in four of the seven victories in 2013 occurring with less than five minutes to play in regulation.
A sign of a quality team is a balanced attack, which was a key to the Orange and Blue wrapping up non-conference play at 7-2-1. Five different players have tallied at least two goals. Senior Azia Nicholson leads the way (four, t7th C-USA) while senior Jade Babcock and sophomore Angela Cutaia rank tied for second (third). Redshirt-freshman Aleah Davis and senior Tori Martyn have found the back of the net twice.
Babcock, Cutaia and Nicholson have also been involved as playmakers, sharing the team lead with a pair.
Sarah Dilling has earned the bulk of the playing time in the net, registering 28 saves on 37 shots faced. Her goals against average (0.98). Redshirt-freshman Keighton Allen has appeared in two contests, turning away two of three shots on goal.
While the goalkeepers have been sharp, much credit must also be given to the Miners’ stop troops. The opposition has been limited to 4.0 shots on goal per game, which is the best mark among all 16 C-USA squads.
Rice leads the series with the Miners, 9-5-1, although UTEP sports a mark of 3-2-1 against the Owls at home.
This year Rice stands at 2-3-2, although it has played a challenging schedule. The Owls have sustained home setbacks to Stephen F. Austin (1-0, Aug. 23) and LSU (1-0, Sept. 15) while falling on the road at New Mexico (3-0, Sept. 6). They did topple Southeastern Conference member Vanderbilt on the road (3-2, Sept. 1) while also besting Lamar at home (5-3, Sept. 10).
Rice has been out-scored 10-8 this year. It has an 3-2 advantage in the first half but the opposition holds an 8-5 advantage in the second stanza. Foes have earned 14 more corners (42-28), helped by 18-8 edge in second half.
There are some big-time threats on offense. Lauren Hughes (four goals) & 12 Holly Hargreaves (three) have combined for seven of Rice's eight goals. Hughes (14) & Hargreaves (12) also rate first and second, respectively, on the squad in shots on goal. Gabriela Iribame (six) & Quinny Truong (six) share third. No other Owl has more than two shots on goal in 2013.
GK Amy Czyz has started every match on the year, making 29 saves on 38 shots faced.
Coincidentally enough, the Owls have been better on the road (1-1-2) than at home (1-2-0) in 2013, which has also been the case for the Orange and Blue (3-2-1 home, 4-0-0 road).
UTEP has won the last five meetings and is 6-1-0 all-time against Southern Miss, but USM soared to a mark of 6-2-2 during non-conference play.
A dominant offense has powered the strong start to the year, with the Lady Eagles out-scoring the opposition, 37-13 and outshooting them, 221-112. Danica Roberts (11), Chelsea Cruthirds (six) and Brooke Hendrix (four) have been the top threats, though seven different USM players have found the back of the net at least twice.
Hendrix (six), Roberts (three), Anya Koren (three) & Mischa Tice (three) have all made impacts through their playmaking abilities, with each boasting at least three assists.
USM yielded just seven total goals through the first nine games before giving up six in a shutout loss at Auburn (6-0, Sept. 22). Last time out. Corner kicks have been equally distributed, with the Lady Eagles managing a slight edge (40-38).
Brittany Taylor & Lindsey Schwaner have each appeared in eight games in goal.