By Kurt Ritzman
Assistant Sports Editor
With time ticking down, Ashford women’s soccer coach Mick Regan needed someone to score a game-winner to avoid overtime.
With about four minutes to play against Davenport (Mich.) and the score tied at 3, the Saints were able to play the ball out of their defensive end.
Ashford’s leading scorer, Hollie Babut received the ball near midfield and found Chamea Palmer on the right sideline.
“Me and Chamea, we usually know what to do with each other,” Babut said. “We connect really well. I knew she was going to make that run. We talked about it just minutes before. I turned and I knew she was going to be there without even looking.”
Palmer found freshman Morgan McNeil making a run down the middle of the field. McNeil took one dribble and fired it past Davenport’s goalkeeper for her first goal of the season and the game-winning goal in a 4-3 Ashford win. The victory was Ashford’s first in the NAIA tournament and sent the Saints to the round of 16.
“What a time to score your first goal,” Regan said.
“It was a beautiful ball,” McNeil said. “I just had to pop it in. I’m just lucky I didn’t miss it.”
The freshman midfielder said she had a little extra incentive — other than the obvious — for her first goal.
“I just didn’t want to go to school, to be honest,” McNeil said with a laugh. “We get to go to Alabama and have fun in the sun.”
Things didn’t look great for Ashford for much of the match.
The Saints trailed 2-1 after 15 minutes, 7 seconds for 31 minutes and trailed 3-2 for 15 minutes in the second half.
“It just shows the great character that this team has,” McNeil said.
“You can’t come to our home field and beat us to go to nationals, where we want to go so badly,” senior Chelsea Fisher said. “I think we did an excellent job proving we deserved to win. We came back through everything. We played with heart and battled hard and we won. That’s all there is to it.”
Ashford got on the board first with Babut’s 21st goal of the season. Less than three minutes into the game, she split a pair of defenders and scored.
“I knew they were going to be tough on me,” Babut said. “I knew they weren’t going to let me turn or anything. Basically I knew I had one chance, and I made the first one count. That was all I got, so I’m glad I got that one in.”
But three minutes later, Letesha Cannonier scored off a rebound to even the score. Less than 10 minutes later, Karitas Elvarsdottir crossed the ball from about 40 yards out to Paige Eli at about the 18. Eli took a touch and fired the ball into the opposite lower corner to give Davenport the 2-1 advantage.
Despite allowing two first-half goals, Ashford keeper Jessica VanDyke made eight first-half saves, including a great stop of Eli with nine minutes left.
“It was a very open game,” Regan said. “Both defenses gave up chances. It could really have been 4-1, 5-1 at halftime if Jess hadn’t been on her game. It was a massive performance from her.”
Less than 90 seconds into the second half, Ashford found the equalizer. Gudrun Eggertsdottir took a pass from Fisher, dribbled around the keeper and shot the ball in the middle of the open net.
“It’s actually exactly the opposite of what we usually do,” Regan said. “A couple games this year we’ve let in two or three goals in the first five minutes. We really focused on being No. 1 in that first five, 10 minutes and getting the goals. Especially in the second half when we came out and scored so early, put them on their heels a little bit.”
But Cannonier struck again to put Davenport ahead 3-2 after a poor clear from an Ashford defender.
“We can score goals,” Regan said. “So, we’re never out of it.”
With just more than 21 minutes to play, Ashford and Palmer took advantage of a mistake.
Davenport goalkeeper Michelle Marcus played the ball right to Palmer, who fired the ball on goal while the Marcus was off the goal line. The shot went over Marcus and tied the game. Palmer’s equalizer set up McNeil’s heroics.
Several members of this team were part of Ashford’s first team to qualify for the NAIA tournament two years ago. That ended with an 8-4 road defeat to William Jewell.
“We’ve gotten to this point before, so all we’ve really had in mind was getting further than we’ve ever gotten,” Babut said. “This year we were more prepared and knew what to expect.”
Fisher pointed to something else as the difference.
“Heart,” she said. “We have such a good group of girls on the field and the players who are on the bench and our second team. We’re so competitive with each other and we push each other. We’re a team. We did everything we could for each other.”
About 20 minutes after the match ended, Regan said his players had enjoyed the win enough and it was time to get back to work. Then he chuckled a little but did point out the Saints’ next game would be against the No. 2 seed a week from Monday in Alabama.
“We’re looking at Lindsey Wilson — who is one of the all-time greats in women’s soccer — so we have to go straight to work,” he said. “We’ll start planning right away.”
ASHFORD 4, DAVENPORT 3
Davenport 2 1 — 3
Ashford 1 3 — 4
A — Hollie Babut, 2:41
D — Letesha Cannonier, 5:42
D — Paige Eli (Karitas Elvarsdottir), 15:07
A — Gudrun Eggertsdottir (Chelsea Fisher), 46:22
D — Cannonier, 53:50
A — Chamea Palmer, 68:58
A — Morgan McNeil (Palmer), 86:26.
Shots — Davenport 23; Ashford 16. Saves — Davenport, Michelle Marcus 6; Ashford, Jessica VanDyke 10. Corner kicks — Davenport 2; Ashford 1. Fouls — Davenport 9; Ashford 6. Yellow cards — Davenport 2 (Ashley Roth, 73:14; Lizzie Paul, 74:35); Ashford 2 (Babut, 32:41; Halla Marinosdottir, 72:46).