MELBOURNE, Fla. — The disappointment was both understandable, and palpable.
However, in the aftermath of Navarro College’s 3-1 loss to top-seeded Iowa Western in the NJCAA national championship women’s soccer game Saturday, there was also another feeling:
“I’m proud of every single one of those girls over there, and my coaches” co-captain Lexi Riggs said.
All season long, the Bulldogs (19-4-1) seemed to rely on two things – a suffocating defense, and coming up with the big plays when they needed them.
Unfortunately, on the biggest stage of the season Saturday night, the defense made two mistakes that led to Iowa Western goals and while the Bulldogs were able to cut the lead in half on a goal by Trudi Carter, the game-tying goal wasn’t to be had despite several strong attempts.
Iowa Western would score again, on a shot that hit off the crossbar, and the Bulldogs were out of magical finishes.
“We were scared,” Navarro sophomore defender and co-captain Judith Bast said. “I don’t know why we were scared. We saw in the second half when we pressured them, they were nervous; kicking the ball, missing the ball.
“But at the beginning of the game we were not playing our game. We played with fear. I don’t know why. That’s why they scored two goals in the first half.”
Riggs attributed both of those goals to a momentary lack of focus on the part of the Bulldogs’ defense. Both times, Navarro College was trying to clear the ball out of the goal area, but lost possession.
The first goal came with just over eight minutes gone in the game. The second, which was a real dagger, came with 21:34 to play in the half as a Navarro defender’s attempt to kick the ball out, instead spun back toward the Bulldogs’ goal. A shot hit off the left post, and in the scramble after the ball, Iowa Western’s Brianne Richard beat three Navarro defenders to it and poked it in for a 2-0 lead.
“They hadn’t played like freshmen all (year), but tonight they played like freshmen,” Navarro assistant coach Aric Bonner said. “That’s kind of the good news/bad news that you’ve got 25 freshmen. The bad news is that sometimes they’re going to play like freshmen and tonight was one of those nights.
“Iowa Western played very, very well. … They played better than us, and they deserved to win.”
The Bulldogs looked like they might have a chance to turn things around when they came out aggressively in the opening minutes of the second half. Shanise Foster fed Carter with a perfect pass to allow the freshman forward to split two defenders and score her 24th goal of the season to make it 2-1with 40:35 to play in the game.
Less than six minutes later, Foster saw her attempt to tie the game foiled when Iowa Western keeper Kelsey East came out and blocked the shot with her body.
Several more Navarro attempts either went wide of the net or were blocked by East.
The tide turned, once again, after Iowa Western scored its final goal with just over 22 minutes to play.
Bast was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Back while Carter and Morgan Nutley were both named to the all-tournament team.
As devastating as the loss was, there was still so much for the players to take to heart. After all, they went 2-0-1 against their arch rival, Tyler Junior College, and they had the best season the Navarro women’s soccer program has ever had.
“I thought they did a great job,” head coach Debbie Bonner said. “This team has always been as good as Tyler Junior College. Everybody’s always made Tyler Junior College out to be something, but we play at the same level. We play those kinds of games all the time.”
Earlier in the week, the Bonners said they weren’t sure what to expect out of this team at the start of the season because they had so many freshmen.
What they got was one heck of a team, one heck of a ride to the No. 2 spot in the country.
“I never thought we would come this far,” Bast said. “We just (need to) keep our heads up and be proud of what we did.”
Riggs said she had been dreaming of being in the national title game since the first week of her freshman year.
“They made my dream come true, being in this game, on this night,” she said.