MURFREESBORO, TN. (WBKO) --- Junior Ashley Leonard’s goal in the 33rd minute and a stout defensive effort carried WKU to its first win over archrival Middle Tennessee at the Dean A. Hayes Soccer Stadium since 2011 with Sunday evening’s 1-0 decision.
WKU (2-1-1) rebounded from its first loss of the season on Friday night at Samford, holding the high-powered Blue Raider offense to just four shots on goal. Middle Tennessee (3-1) had previously scored four or more goals in each of its first three matches this season before WKU earned the shutout on Sunday.
Sunday’s match was considered a non-conference tilt between the two sides due to C-USA scheduling conflicts. Due to the league’s scheduling policy, the Lady Toppers and Blue Raiders did not meet last season and were not scheduled to meet in 2019, with both coaching staffs agreeing instead on a non-conference bout. WKU also took the lead in the all-time series against the Blue Raiders with the win, moving to 7-6-6 in the storied rivalry.
“I’m just really proud of our kids. We really needed a hard-fought, gritty win against a good team,” Head Coach Jason Neidell said. “After letting Friday’s match slip through our fingertips, our kids found a way tonight. It says a lot about this team’s mentality and will to win.”
For the second straight match, preseason All-C-USA pick Ambere Barnett led WKU with four shots, three of which were put on frame in a strong offensive effort. Despite being outshot 19-10 overall, the Lady Toppers held a 5-4 advantage in shots on goal, the biggest of which came off the foot of Leonard midway through the first half to provide the match-winner.
Freshman Ansley Cate provided the assist on Leonard’s goal, with the Troy, Mich., native beating Middle Tennessee goalkeeper Sydney Chalcraft for her second tally of the season.
In goal, Anne-Marie Ulliac earned her second solo shutout of the season, saving all four of the Blue Raiders’ chances across her 90 minutes of action.
Amber Hoot had five shots on the night to lead Middle Tennessee, but the WKU defense locked down Preseason C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Peyton DePriest, holding one of the top scorers in the conference to a single shot. Chalcraft played the full match in goal for the Blue Raiders, making four saves and giving up only Leonard’s match-winner.
After inclement weather briefly delayed the start of the match, both sides came out with good chances in the first 10 minutes. Barnett’s first shot of the match was parried away by Chalcraft, while Ulliac was forced into early action to stonewall chances from Sam DeBien and Hannah Tillett of the Blue Raiders to maintain the early deadlock.
Both sides played a largely even match for much of the next half-hour before Leonard’s breakthrough at the 32:55 mark. Played through on the assist from Cate, the junior found the back of the net, beating Chalcraft to give the Lady Toppers a 1-0 advantage midway through the first half.
Another big save by Ulliac in the 40th minute denied the pressing Middle Tennessee attack and sent WKU into the locker room still holding its 1-0 lead.
The best scoring chance for either side in the second half came from the Blue Raiders, who were inches away from pulling level in the 69th minute. Working on the counterattack, Hoot found Tillett open at the top of the box with space, but the shot narrowly sailed over the top of the crossbar to end the threat. Though Middle Tennessee attempted to push up for a late winner, Ulliac and the back line closed out the victory over the final 20 minutes.
With its early-season road swing in the books, WKU will return to the Soccer Complex on Thursday evening at 7 p.m. to host SEC power Ole Miss in the first match of a program-record seven-match homestand. In the most recent meeting between the two sides in Bowling Green, the Lady Toppers claimed a thrilling 2-1 overtime win on Aug. 22, 2008, and WKU will be looking to recreate that result on Thursday against the Rebels.