Despite falling behind by two goals for the first time all season, No. 2 Westmont women's soccer (17-1-5) has advanced to the 2013 NAIA Women's Soccer National Championship game. They will face Concordia (OR) on Saturday at 3:00 pm, Pacific Time.
The Warriors tied No. 3 Northwood of Florida (17-1-2) by a score of 2-2, then won the penalty kick shootout 7-6 to earn a return to the championship game for the first time since 2003.
"Ever since (our trip to) Africa, I thought, 'This is a special group and they are poised to do something special,'" said Westmont head coach Kristi Kiely. "I never knew what that would look like, but here we are still going. Being in the national championship game is exciting. I'm not surprised that this group was able to do it. They have put in hard work for 10 months now. I have very proud of them. I am just thankful to get to spend another day with them and to get to play for a national championship on that day."
Neither team scored until the 40th minute of play. Courtney Stonesifer was called for a foul and Northwood's Helen Lynskey scored on the resulting free kick. Lynskey, a senior from Rotherham, England, has scored more than 100 goals in her four year career.
In the 56th minute, Lynskey got loose from her defender and scored again, giving Northwood a 2-0 lead.
"I knew that we could come back," said Westmont goalkeeper Lindsey Smith. "When Helen turned and scored, it was a turning point for us. It was a realization of our back line that we have to be a little bit tighter. Then you saw our defensive pressure increase a whole lot. We knew we could do it and turn it around. We know what we needed to do."
"No one on our team questioned we could turn it around," said Jenny Martinez. "No one had to change our attitude; we all completely believed we could do it."
"There was still something about this team that they are not going to give up," said Kiely. "There was still plenty of time left. I didn't feel great, but I still believed in this group because they have earned that (belief)."
Faith became sight a minute and 23 seconds later when Brooke Lillywhite headed in a corner kick from Mallory Mitchell. Buoyed by getting on the scoreboard, the Warriors' intensity and energy level went up another notch. The equalizer came in the 70th minute when, just like yesterday, a Mitchell corner kick resulted in an own goal.
"In moments when we have been down, we have been able to get back very quickly," said Kiley, "The spark and energy reminds them that we are in this and we are relentless in our effort and are going to pursue this like crazy. They earned the corner kicks and were able to capitalize on them and make a mess of things in front of the net."
The Warriors nearly won the game in the second overtime period. Kelsey Steck took a hard shot at the goal which was saved by Northwood's goalkeeper Matilda Ojaniemi of Sweden. The ball came out to Mitchell who fired away. Her shot hit the cross bar and bounced down to the ground before being cleared away by a Seahawk defender.
With the end of the second overtime period, the game was officially declared a tie and for the first time in this year's championship, a shootout determined who would advance.
"I hate penalty kicks," acknowledged Kiely after the game. "I hated them as a player and I don't like them as a coach. But I told the team, 'We have been here before, we have practiced them almost every day so take deep breaths. This is what you have been doing day in and day out and you are doing it again.'"
Alison Hensley led off the penalty kicks and scored to give Westmont a 1-0 lead. Then Smith stepped in to defend the net for the Warriors.
"You pray a lot," said Smith when asked how she approached the shootout. "They were very good at taking PKs. They are a very good team, very technical. But, the pressure is really on the kicker."
Lynskey was first up for the Seahawks. She went to her left, but so did Smith who produced a save to preserve Westmont's 1-0 lead. Martinez made it 2-0 before Johanna Engberg converted Northwood's first PK.
On the third set of kickers, Lillywhite's attempt was blocked by Ojaniemi giving Northwood a chance to tie the score at two, which Amy Vaughan did. It was the first of 10 made shots in a row by players from each team.
With the shootout score tied at six goals each, Carly Holly stepped up and scored again for the Warriors. Then it was time for the Seahawks Erin Wells. Wells went right and Smith lunged to her left, grabbing the ball in the air and falling to the ground with victory in her arms.
She picked herself up, released the harmless projectile and waited. She waited for her team to run from midfield and from the sideline. She waited with open arms as Martinez leapt into her sure grasp. She waited for it to sink in.
"I'm a little shocked still," said Smith. "It doesn't feel real. But it is an exciting feeling to know that our work that we have put in has paid off."
"They stepped up with such great confidence and took care of business," said Kiely of her PK shooters. "Obviously, Lindsey was able to come up big again. She has been tremendous in the goal in every way possible. I'm glad for her to be able to have that tonight.
"They are relentless and earned every belief that we have in them," said Kiely of her players. "They never give up."
Tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. CST, 3:00 p.m. PST, the Warriors will take on No. 4 Concordia of Oregon in the championship game. The Warriors and Cavaliers have already met once this season. On August 30, Westmont played Concordia to a 0-0 double-overtime tie in Portland.
"Concordia is a very good side," said Kiely. "It will be a very difficult game between two very strong defenses. It will be a matter of whose legs can go after an overtime game the day before."
Concordia earned a spot in the tomorrow's championship game when it defeated No. 1 Lindsey Wilson (21-4) in the other semifinal by a score of 2-1 in double overtime.
For seven seniors, their collegiate careers will end exactly where they had hoped - in a national championship game.
"There is only one game left," said senior Amanda Diesen. "We started with six in our freshman class and then added (Caroline) Moe. We have grown so close together. Other classes have lost people, but we have only gained one and we have become so strong because of it."
"It is awesome," said Martinez of playing in the championship game. "It is so exciting, but I don't want to say I am surprised because it is what we have been working for all year. I think we have earned the right to be here, but at the same time, we are ecstatic. It's fun to be a part of it. At the end of this game, everyone was crying and excited for another opportunity to play together."