By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer
Led by senior midfielder Ashley Merrill’s two-goal game, Baylor soccer capped off the season strong with a 3-2 win over new Big 12 competitor Houston Monday night at the Carl Lewis International Complex in Houston. The Bears clinched a spot in the 2023 Sprouts Farmers Market Big 12 Soccer Championship with the victory.
Merrill’s two goals put her season total at 11, which marks the most from an individual player in a single season since Dana Larsen in 2012. Baylor’s nine wins on the year is also the most since 2018.
Head coach Michelle Lenard and the Bears (9-6-3, 4-4-2 Big 12) started strong as freshman midfielder Salma Simonin took a pass from graduate student forward Jenna Patterson and scored from just inside the 18-yard box with exactly 10 minutes off the clock. However, the 1-0 lead didn’t last long as Houston (8-8-2, 2-7-1 Big 12) answered less than a minute later with a goal of its own to even it up 1-1.
Baylor regained the lead later in the first half. In the 35th minute, Merrill found her first goal after chasing down the ball in space and sending a hard drive from more than 20 yards away toward the net. The ball pinged off the right goalpost and ricocheted into the back of the net. Despite a few more opportunities later in the half, the Bears contently rode the 2-1 lead into the half.
Coming out of the break, the Bears supplied pressure throughout the second half, racking up 12 shots — doubling the Cougars’ six shots in the final 45 minutes. Merrill led Baylor with five shots on the night, but she came close to netting one in the 65th minute. The midfielder blasted the ball as it clanked off the upright and flew straight up into the air, but it failed to hit the back of the net.
After coming inches away from extending the lead, in the 68th minute, the Cougars tied the game up with a goal. Only allowing the two goals, sophomore goalkeeper Ashlee Zirkel saved the final few opportunities the rest of the way, and the defense kept the game tight.
It was in the 81st minute that Merrill supplied the winning blow after narrowly missing minutes before. The senior dribbled the ball past midfield and swerved multiple defenders before rearing back and uncorking a bullet into the back of the net from the top of the 18-yard box, giving the Bears the 3-2 lead and eventual win.
With the regular season in the rearview mirror, the green and gold will be back in action for postseason play on Saturday. Slotted at No. 8, the Bears will face off against No. 9 seed Cincinnati at 1 p.m. in the First Round of the Big 12 Championship at Round Rock Multipurpose Complex in Round Rock.