Heated Sun Belt soccer race should become clearer

MT puts share of lead on line at Denver Friday, North Texas Sunday

October 19, 2006 · MT Media Relations

DENVER, Colo. - What has been a tightly-contested Sun Belt Conference soccer race should become clearer as the league's top four teams square off against one another this weekend. Middle Tennessee, Denver and North Texas are SBC co-leaders with 8-0 records, while Western Kentucky is fourth but only one game back at 7-1.

Middle Tennessee (14-2, 8-0) will put its share of the SBC lead on the line against Denver (12-2-1, 8-0) Friday afternoon, before traveling to North Texas (12-2-2, 8-0) Sunday at 1 p.m. Western Kentucky (11-4, 7-1) is on the same swing as the Blue Raiders.

"It's certainly a big weekend because you are playing the top two teams in the league and you are playing them at their home and they are undefeated in the league," said Middle Tennessee coach Aston Rhoden. "Regardless of the situation it is always going to be a tough weekend when you make this trip because you are playing quality teams. Of course, I believe we fall into that category."

Denver comes into Friday's game ranked as high as seventh in some Central Region polls, while Middle Tennessee is ranked 14th in the Central Region by Soccer Buzz. The Pioneers return 10 starters and leads the series 7-2; however, the Blue Raiders have won the last two games, including a 2-1 double-overtime win at Denver in 2004.

"This is not a climatic game for us by any means," Rhoden said. "It takes on more importance because of the record both teams hold. Some people have billed it as 'Championship Weekend,' but where we are concerned it is another game where we are trying to get positive results. Denver has always been a very, very well-coached team, a very organized team, and they are flexible in their system of play. They will certainly pose a tremendous challenge."

Friday's game will feature some of the nation's statistical leaders with four of top 25 points leaders, as well as four of the top 25 assists leaders, on display. Middle Tennessee enters the game with the nation's third-highest scoring offense (4.25 goals per game), while Denver is fifth (3.40).

Kala Morgan and Holly Grogan are first and third nationally in points per game, respectively, while teammate Jen Threlkeld is 24th. Denver's Taryn Hemmings is 13th nationally. Morgan also leads America in goals per game; Grogan is fifth. Threlkeld is sixth nationally in assists; Grogan is ninth: Hemmings 13th; and Blue Raider senior Rebecca Rodriguez is 25th.

Middle Tennessee freshman Mary Zapapas, who is among league leaders in all three major offensive statistical categories, will be returning to her home state. Zapapas is a native of Centennial, Colo.

Middle Tennessee and Denver also feature two of the league's stingiest defenses. The Pioneers are 19th nationally in goals-against-average (0.5) and 27th in shutouts with eight in 15 games. The Blue Raiders are on the verge of the top 30 in shutouts with eight. Middle Tennessee's strong defensive squad is a combination of outstanding back line and midfield play, quality goalkeeping, and an attacking style of offense that keeps the pressure on the opposition.

In conference games only, Middle Tennessee is second in goals allowed (4), shutouts (5), and goals against average (0.38). Only Western Kentucky is rated higher in any of the categories. Freshman keeper Erynn Murray has been in goal for all eight conference games and leads the SBC in goals-against-average and save percentage, and is second in shutouts with three. She left three other games with shutouts in the second half; however, NCAA rules only allow individual shutouts if the keeper goes the distance.

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