By Brandon Scalea
The 2016 season has been a year of firsts for the women’s soccer team.
Rider (7-2-2, 4-0 MAAC) made program history on Oct. 1, shutting out Niagara on the road to start MAAC play 4-0 for the first time. For Head Coach Drayson Hounsome, it was his first career win at Niagara in nine seasons with the team.
The Broncs, hungry for their second conference title in three years, are continuing to turn heads.
Hounsome said the team’s accomplishments thus far are a result of a lot of dedication.
“It is remarkable to be 4-0 and in first place,” he said. “Seeing both men’s and women’s soccer on top of the table this year is a testament to all the hard work that has been put in by everybody involved in the athletics department. We’ve made the sport of soccer a successful and popular product here at Rider.”
Against the Purple Eagles (2-7-1, 1-3 MAAC), senior goalkeeper Bethany May-Howard made six saves en route to her fifth shutout of the season. It was the 20th shutout of her career, already a program record. She also earned MAAC Defensive Player of the Week for the fourth time this year.
Junior forward Michelle Iacono scored the lone goal of the game to secure Rider’s win.
Hounsome said the team previously struggled at Niagara because of the long travel. Until this season, the Broncs were the only team in the MAAC required to make the long drive mid-week, then play the next day. They would come out sluggish, and ultimately come up short. This year, the team enjoyed a weekend trip.
“The duration and intensity of each match, along with the limited substitution rules, means prolonged travel has a strong influence on the readiness to perform in soccer,” he said. “We have tried many different ways to overcome this obstacle, and all have been unsuccessful previously. There is always a home-field advantage, but we were able to lessen it this year and perform the way we would play at Ben Cohen Field.”
In the first half, the home team controlled possession and momentum. Rider was outshot 9-5, but had the edge in penalty kicks. Howard kept the Broncs in the game early, with four first-half saves. Niagara, despite the loss, would ultimately outshoot Rider 15-9.
With only one shot on goal deep into the second half, the Broncs looked to get something going offensively in the 70th minute. Freshman midfielder Valeria Pascuet sent a long pass to junior midfielder Ellie Smith, who found Iacono alone on the breakaway. Iacono drilled it past Niagara’s goalkeeper, Shania van Nuland, for the game-winner.
Smith said the goal was a beautiful bit of ball-handling.
“I played a through-ball to the left to Michelle, who made a brilliant run,” she said. “She stayed onside, took a couple of touches and slotted the ball with her left foot in the right corner. It was a brilliant finish.”
It was the second goal of the year for Iacono, and the 10th of her career. Smith now has 16 points on the season, ranking her second in the MAAC, behind only Michele Tremblay of Siena.
This season’s start is significantly better than 2014, when the team won the conference title. Even then, the team was just 2-1-1 in its first four MAAC games.
Smith said the Broncs have certainly taken time to appreciate what they’ve already done this year, but the ultimate goal is to win the conference.
“It really means a lot to us to be 4-0 and to be the first team in our history to do that,” she said. “Breaking records is an awesome feeling as a team, and we just want to keep breaking them. It’s just a brilliant situation, we’ve worked so hard for this.”
Rider will host second-place Monmouth on Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. The Hawks are also unbeaten in conference play, with a 3-0 record. Last year’s meeting between the two teams resulted in a 2-1 Monmouth victory in West Long Branch.
Hounsome said it is critical for his team to keep the momentum rolling in order to stay in first place.
“Monmouth is three points behind us in the standings, so we know they will be doing everything possible to overtake us on Wednesday,” he said. “We will do whatever we can to stay ahead, looking to move six points clear and keep them in second place.”