CLINTON – Only one word could be heard throughout Saints' field from players, coaches and fans to describe the #15-seeded Ashford women's soccer team in its 29th annual NAIA Women's Soccer National Championship Opening Round match -- amazing.
Freshman Morgan McNeil netted the game-winning goal with 3:34 to play in the game as AU punched its ticket to Alabama on Saturday night, getting three second half goals and battling back from two one-goal deficits to knock off Davenport University (Mich.), 4-3. The triumph also gave the Saints the program's first NAIA National Tournament victory.
Facing a very determined Panthers squad, another intangible helped propel the Saints to the round of 16.
"Heart," senior midfielder Chelsea Fisher said with a smile. "The biggest difference between this year and a few years ago when we went to nationals was our heart. We made it this far a few years ago and we didn't want to lose again. We were down for a long time in the game and to win the way we did, I can't even describe it. We worked so, so hard today."
"It showed great character from our team to battle back," McNeil added. "Not only the girls on the field, but also the girls on the bench. As a freshman, you feel for the seniors and you wanted to win for them. We were able to do that today and it feels amazing."
Things looked to be in Ashford's control in the early going, when junior Hollie Babut was able to gather a ball, split two Panther defenders and beat Davenport goalkeeper Michelle Marcus, giving the Saints a 1-0 lead only 2:41 into the game.
But it turned out to be the start of a wild contest, and just over 15 minutes into the first half, Davenport got goals from Letesha Cannonier and Paige Eli to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead that they would carry into the half.
But the Saints were not discouraged heading to the break, as they got great goalkeeping from Jessica VanDyke to keep them in the game after the shots favored the visitors through one half.
"She was phenomenal all day today," Head Coach Mick Regan said of his net minder. "Without her, it could have easily been 5-1 at the half. She played like an all-conference keeper today and it was a boost to us."
Out of the intermission, the Ashford offense wasted no time getting to work. Freshman Gudrun Eggertsdottir got a pass from Fisher and slipped the ball around Marcus, who was charging out of the net to halt play, and fired into an empty cage to tie the game at two only 1:22 into the second frame.
But in the 53rd minute, Cannonier would strike again to put the Panthers on top and start the Saints' battle against not only the opposition, but the clock as well.
Things were starting to look bleak for the Saints, but they were able to cash in on a mistake to even the game. Marcus was caught too far out of her crease on a goal kick that landed in front of junior Chamea Butcher, who buried the mistake from 25 yards out to tie the game in the 68th minute.
The game was appeared to be destined for overtime as the clock continued to tick down. And just as the four-minute mark passed, Palmer took a pass down the right wing and broke in on the net. She was able to take the Davenport defender out of play and tap the ball back to a wide open McNeil, who made no mistake to provide the deciding marker.
"She made my job easy," McNeil said with a grin. "We worked it all the way down the field and she made a great play to get it in. All I had to do was tap it home."
The aforementioned VanDyke was brilliant, stopping 10 of 13 shots for the Saints.
Ashford advances to Orange Beach, Ala. where they will line up against #2-seeded Lindsey Wilson College (Ky.). The Blue Raiders downed Park University (Mo.), 4-0, on Saturday.
Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 26.