By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
The whirlwind of emotions continued for Baylor soccer Monday afternoon.
A day after the team finished their three-win-in-five-day performance, capped off by junior forward Lauren Piercy’s game-winning overtime goal against Texas Christian University to win the Big 12 Tournament, the Bears got the news that they will host the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Betty Lou Mays Field. The Big 12 Tournament title was Baylor’s first since 2012 and has now provides an opportunity that junior midfielder Julie James didn’t think the Bears would get.
“It’s always really exciting, but definitely now that we have a home game,” James said. “It’s exciting to bring it back to Betty Lou. We thought we were done at Betty Lou, so to get one more chance, it’s going to be really fun.”
The 2017 NCAA Tournament field was announced live on NCAA.com Monday afternoon. In a packed team room at the Williams Family Center, the Bears anxiously waited to hear their names called.
Forty-three other schools found out their fate before Baylor, but once its name was called, the room went into full-on celebration.
Senior defender Precious Akanyirige said not only to make the tournament but to also host is a testament to the team’s resolve and no-quit attitude.
“It’s awesome. I’m just so proud of our team. We had a great week together and played really hard and we’re really excited to continue to play in our season and play together, and it’s awesome that we’re going to be able to play at home. No more road trips and it’s awesome our whole team gets to be here supporting us,” Akanyirige said. “I’m just so proud of our team. We’ve been through so much this season and in the past few years, and it’s just great to see our hard work pay off.”
Staring at the Bears on the other side of the bracket will be the Rice Owls, a team that Baylor tied 0-0 after 110 minutes back on Aug. 24.
A second chance at Rice follows suit perfectly with the narrative Baylor just finished at the Big 12 Tournament last week. After losing to Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU during the regular season, the Bears got redemption in against all three in Kansas City, Mo.
James said they’d like to add a fourth team to that list.
“I think it’s just added excitement just because it’s kind of funny, we’ve had a little bit of a redemption story getting to play a lot of the teams that we lost to in season and that’s another team that we kind of let slip away,” James said. “We tied them but went into overtime. But it’s going to be exciting to try and redeem that story again.”
As great of an accomplishment as winning the Big 12 Tournament, returning to and hosting the NCAA Tournament was, the Bears will not be satisfied with just making it. Akanyirge said Baylor has its aspirations set a little bit higher.
“We’re definitely a team of competitors, and we’re not just satisfied with just getting in,” Akanyirge said. “Obviously everyone wants to go for the national championship, and that’s what we’re going for. So we’re just taking it one game at a time, but we’ll definitely try to get the win each time.”
Despite having their sights set on a loftier goal, Baylor head coach Paul Jobson and the Bears will not overlook Rice, as the Owls put together an impressive 12-3-2 campaign.
“They’ve been a quality team for a number of years and Nicki has done a great job there,” Jobson said. “They’ve always played us really well. So it’s going to be a great first round match.”
Rice is led offensively by senior forward Nia Stallings, who leads the team 23 points, including eight goals and seven assists. Senior midfielder Samantha Chalken also scored eight goals for the Owls this season.
In their meeting in August, Baylor outshot Rice 18-11, but the Owls did not see freshman goalkeeper Jennifer Wandt, who was the 2017 Big 12 All-Freshman goalkeeper.
Baylor was not the only Big 12 school to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Texas earned a No. 4 seed and will host North Texas on Friday; West Virginia earned a No. 2 seed and will host Bucknell on Saturday; Oklahoma State will host Missouri State on Saturday; and TCU will head to Tucson, Ariz., to play the Arizona Wildcats on Friday.
The strength of the Big 12 conference is something that James believes has benefited the Bears in their preparation for the tournament.
“It’s really great to be part of a really competitive conference,” James said. “I told a few people that it really helps being part of a conference that is continuing to grow and get better every year and I really think that that has helped prepare us this year. Playing so many tight games, close games, physical games, it’s really prepared our team for what’s next.”
Baylor (13-5-2) will meet Rice (12-3-2) at 7 p.m. Friday at Betty Lou Mays Field. The winner will advance to take on the winner of the University of Southern California and Eastern Washington matchup.