Improbable journey continues with GPAC tournament title, national tournament berth

HASTINGS, Neb. – A jubilant Concordia University women’s soccer team continued its on-field celebration following the biggest win in the 19-year history of the program. The moment was much too fresh for head coach Greg Henson to even comprehend what had occurred. “Is this real? Did that really just happen?” Henson asked as bone-chilled Bulldog fans continued to file onto Lloyd Wilson Field in Hastings, Neb.

The brisk November night wasn’t getting any warmer, but no one associated with Concordia women’s soccer bothered to care. In their first-ever appearance in the GPAC title game, the Bulldogs upset regular-season champion and 20th-ranked Hastings, 1-0, on Thursday night. And in another first for the program, Henson’s squad has earned an automatic berth to the national tournament.

“We set it as one of our goals to get to nationals, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I thought it was a little bit off the radar,” Henson said. “All season long we’ve been competing. This team has just gotten better and better as the season’s gone on. It started to seem like this was within our grasp.

“I can’t be any happier or more proud of the players on this roster.”

For virtually the entire contest, Concordia (15-2-4) played on the defensive against an aggressive Hastings attack. But Bulldog sophomore goalkeeper Chrissy Lind and the backline were up for the challenge once again. Lind made nine saves and the Bulldogs somehow dodged every Hastings bullet.

Then in the 81st minute, Concordia took advantage after Hastings misplayed its own goalkick. Senior Emmalynn Rodriguez, who had just subbed into the game, played a cross to Jessica Skerston to the middle of the field. Skerston calmly drilled the ball inside the right post for her 17th goal of the season and the game’s only score.

It was all senior center back Marcie Sindt and company would need to knock off the Broncos (16-4-1) for the second time this season. Hastings peppered Concordia with 25 shots, some near misses, but Sindt, Rachel Mussell and the rest of the defensive effort kept serious threats to a minimum.

Now they’re GPAC champions, but excuse them if that fact hasn’t quite settled in.

“It’s definitely surreal,” Sindt said. “This was always the goal. Good things happen when you have really good leadership. I’m proud of the girls. I’m proud of the fight. It’s pretty crazy.”

Lind made one of her most impressive saves in the 64th-minute with the game still tied. She preserved her 10th shutout (team’s 12th) by punching a shot inside the box from Emily Arrigo over the crossbar. The Broncos got one final opportunity on a free kick with 13 seconds remaining, but Megan Kruse’s shot sailed well over the goal. The celebration was on.

This season’s thrill ride has now taken the Bulldogs on a streak of 13-straight games (9-0-4) without a loss. Every single GPAC team failed to defeat Concordia in 2014, even the league’s perennially dominant Hastings bunch.

In two contests this season with the Broncos, the Bulldogs limited the conference’s top offensive attack to just a single goal.

“That’s been the strength of our team all season long – our back four and Chrissy in goal,” Henson said. “They’ve done a great job of putting us in positions to win games. That’s what we talked about before the game today – defend as a unit and defend as 11.

“The back four is what gave us an opportunity this year.”

The Bulldogs did not register their first shot of the night until freshman Jeannelle Condame’s well-placed free kick resulted in a Melissa Stine header that went over the goal at the 35-minute mark. At that point, Hastings had already fired off 14 shots (four on goal).

But the shot discrepancy did not stop this standard-setting group of Bulldogs. They’re moving on to the national tournament. Concordia will learn of its opponent as part of the 31-team NAIA National Championships field when pairings are released on Monday (Nov. 17).

Currently unranked, Concordia knows it will hit the road to take on a highly-rated opponent when the national tournament opening round gets underway on Saturday, Nov. 22, but right now the Bulldogs are basking in an accomplishment very few would have expected even late in the regular season.

“We were the only ones who believed in us in the beginning,” Sindt said. “Here we are. It’s carried us a long way. We’re just so thankful.”

NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championships Info
The NAIA National Championship will include a field of 31 teams. Thirty (30) teams compete in 15 National Championship Opening Round matchups played on campus sites nationwide. Winners advance to the final site (Orange Beach, Ala.) where the remainder of the single-elimination tournament will be played.

Opening round
The 15 opening-round pairings will be played on Saturday, Nov. 22 at NAIA campuses nationwide. All pairings for the opening round will be based upon the following prioritized criteria:

1. Geographical location of teams
2. Financial considerations
3. Final NAIA MRPI rating/seed
4. Top six seeds are not allowed to be more than four spots either direction from their original seed matchup. Additionally, the remainder of the pairings would be allowed to move up to eight spots either direction from the original seed matchup.
5. No opponent from the same conference can play in the first round.

Opening round host sites will be announced on Nov. 17 after the conference/A.I.I./unaffiliated grouping tournaments have been finished.