Just two months ago, the Big-12 coaches were asked how they thought teams would finish in 2012 conference play. With newcomers West Virginia and Texas Christian joining the league and conference stalwarts Texas A&M, Missouri, Nebraska, and Colorado officially vacating, the coaches chose Oklahoma State to repeat and take the regular season crown. The Texas Longhorns were picked to finish sixth out of nine teams.
With only three conference games remaining, the rebuilding Longhorns have shocked its opponents, taking over the second place spot in the league’s standings with a 4-1 record as NSCAA pre-season No. 5 ranked Oklahoma State’s squad sits in the six spot at 1-3-3.
“At the beginning of the season, we were taught the decisions that you need to make in order to close out a game. All of those tests are paying their dues now. We are executing how to close out a game that much better,” Texas head coach Angela Kelly said.
The Longhorns lost their first game of conference play Friday when they crashed from the previous weekend’s success over the Cowgirls and struggled through a 1-0 loss to Texas Tech. The Red Raiders looked the better team across the board as they brought urgency, pressure, and hunger to the 40 acres against an often befuddled Longhorns squad. Texas reflected the inconsistencies of its early season losses, not the stability recently established with the return of freshman goalkeeper Abby Smith.
“We have a player of the game. Abby Smith was that for us this evening – a tremendous performance,” Kelly said.
Smith saw as many shots on frame Friday as in her previous three Big-12 appearances combined as Texas Tech brought speed and numbers for long stretches, exhausting the Texas backline. Smith made eight saves on the night, matching the team high for the season. Despite her showcasing her value between the posts, Smith couldn’t stop senior Dawn Ward from putting away her rebound in the 58th minute.
“It was one of those games,” Kelly said. “We were a step off. Credit Texas Tech. They capitalized on an opportunity off a mis-clearance.”
The Longhorns were not without their chances, hitting the post and crossbar on quality looks and equaling their opponent in overall shots (15), yet the Red Raiders seemed simply relentless. They willed their way to a win in Austin.
“Sometimes things happen like this, and it’s going to be all about how we respond,” Kelly said.
Texas recovered to face similar talent on Sunday when they played visiting Kansas. The Jayhawks did not bring the same tenacity, however, and failed to produce offensively like Texas Tech, largely due to Texas improving tighter defensive marking across the field and increasing possession.
Sophomore defender Brooke Gilbert scored the gamewinner off a corner kick where Texas boxed Kansas in, not allowing them to clear. The ball was sent back toward goal by freshman Kelsey Shimmick and deflected through to Gilbert at the six yard box who passed it into the corner of the net. The 1-0 victory moved Texas into sole possession of second place behind West Virginia in the Big-12.
“We kept telling ourselves that this is our championship game. We have to win this game. We control our own destiny,” Gilbert said. “We were just really focused on this game to get this win and then move on to the next one and we did that.”
Despite their encouraging present position, the Longhorns will face the league leader in Austin to close out conference play on October 26 and third place Baylor Friday at 7:00 p.m. in Waco. Both opponents are favored against the Longhorns with only last place TCU on Sunday being a probable victory for the Horns.
"Baylor is having one of their best seasons, and they will be a great test for us," Kelly said. "Plus the game is on the road and we haven't been on the road in a while.”
Big-12 coaches and fans may be surprised to realize that if Texas wins out, they will be Big-12 Champions and Oklahoma State cannot exceed an improbable three-way tie for third place.