MELBOURNE, Fla. — First, she freaked out.
Then, she blacked out.
And in the crazy, celebratory crush of her teammates, Naialani Garcia could barely breathe. Her two fractured heels, well, they still hurt … but not as much.
National championship game, here comes the Navarro College Bulldogs.
“It’s amazing,” said Garcia, whose goal with just over three minutes left in overtime gave Navarro a 1-0 victory over Butler Community College in the NJCAA semifinals.
The third-seeded Bulldogs (19-3-1), who are having the best season in school history, will face No. 1 Iowa Western Saturday night at 6 p.m. in the national championship game. Iowa Western defeated Laramie County 4-3 in penalty kicks after a scoreless regulation and overtime period.
It looked like Navarro and Butler might be headed for penalty kicks as well. Despite both teams having a couple of hold-your-breath shots on goal, both goalkeepers came up big all night.
Finally, as Butler was trying to clear the ball out of its own area, Navarro stole possession and Joanna Nigro crossed the ball across the goal to Garcia, who was wide open.
“I kind of freaked out a little bit,” Garcia said. “I was like, ‘I have to get this. Come on!’ So I just took a deep breath and I placed it back corner. The goalie couldn’t get it, so it was perfect. Thank God.”
In a tournament where the Bulldogs have won all three games by one goal, this was easily the most dramatic victory yet.
“I thought we controlled the game,” Navarro assistant coach Aric Bonner said. “So I thought it was just a matter of time before one went in the back of the net. Their goalkeeper (Kelsi Langley) played absolutely tremendous. She made some saves that I was thinking there’s no way she’s going to get to the ball. The girls just dug in and really just pressed hard on that last series and just kept fighting until they got it.
“They were tired of playing (he joked). They just wanted to get the game over. … It just feels good to be in the finals.”
As they have done all season, Navarro’s back line of Lexi Riggs, Judith Bast, Morgan Nutley and goalkeeper Kenia Medina did an exceptional job in helping keep Butler off the scoreboard.
Medina came up with several big saves of her own, Bast knocked another ball out of the goal area and Riggs and Nutley proved to be the perfect foils for anything Butler threw at them.
“It’s hard to beat a defense that’s that close together,” Medina said. “They have my back. I have their back, and we just played hard all night.”
Garcia, who has fractures in both her left and right heel, had ice packs on both of her feet after the game.
“It’s been a hard season, playing with this,” she said. “All season, I’ve been wrestling this injury.”
But for a few moments, at least, Friday night … as she watched her shot hit the back of the net, Garcia was feeling no pain.
“I think I blacked out for a second, honestly,” Garcia said. “I just kind of jumped up and I grabbed my face. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was amazing. Everyone running toward me was amazing … I couldn’t breathe in there.”
As Navarro head coach Debbie Bonner said, the Bulldogs will certainly have their hands full with Iowa Western in the championship game.
But no matter how that game goes, Friday night was the kind of win Garcia and her teammates can remember for the rest of their lives.
“My feet started moving before I could think,” Medina said of watching the game-winning goal. “Everyone was cheering and it was like … we finally did this.”