USA Today once ranked stopping a penalty kick in soccer among the top 10 hardest things to do in sports. Natalie Harold apparently didn’t get that message. Harold, SPU’s senior goalkeeper, blocked not one, but two penalty kicks to take down Western Washington in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday — clinching a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“She was huge,” head coach Chuck Sekyra said. “I’m glad she got that opportunity to show how smart, athletic and capable she is.”
The Falcons got to the championship game after they beat Central Washington in the semifinal game Thursday, also in heart-pounding fashion. SPU had lost to Central Washington twice in the regular season and went down early by an 11th minute goal by CWU’s Meghan Ward. The score remained the same for much of the game until SPU sophomore midfielder Ashley Shaw capitalized on a penalty kick in the 73rd minute. SPU took home the win in the 89th minute when a cross was deflected in by CWU for the own goal.
“No one beat our program three times,” Sekyra. “[Our team] believes that if they put forth the effort, they will get the results they want.”
SPU went on to play Western Washington for the championship game. The Falcons lost to the WWU Vikings both times they played during the regular season, 1-2 in both contests, adding to the already-heated SPU/WWU rivalry. In addition, a victory in this game was the only way of advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
“Every game is won before it’s played,” junior defender Alexa Diaz said. “We were confident on how we played on Thursday, and I had all the faith we were going to win.”
The game started out tense from the beginning, with neither team giving up a goal in the first half.
“The effort was there from the second the initial whistle blew,” Harold said. “We talked about how we hadn’t played a full 90 minutes the first two times [we played them]. We were winning second balls and 50/50 balls, and we stuck to our game plan and played our soccer.”
The 0-0 score remained for much of the second half until SPU freshman forward Hannah Huesers scored a left-footed goal in the 88th minute to put the Falcons up 1-0. Western then kept the pressure coming for the next two minutes and took a corner in the final minute. The ball trickled in over the goal line with 10 second left on a shot by WWU’s Catherine Miles to score a controversial goal after Harold got pushed over during the commotion after the corner, which lead to the goal.
“I think five years ago I would of gotten kicked out of the game because I feel like we got cheated. She got slammed,” Sekyra said.
After the goal was scored, Harold ran after the ref to argue the call.
“I was furious. I thought it should have been a foul,” Harold said. “I got both hands on the ball and got ran over. I was upset I didn’t get the call and that they gave them that goal.”
The game then proceeded to two 10-minute overtime periods, where the first team to score would be the winner.
“I love that it’s golden goal,” Sekyra said. “There will be no chance [for the other team] to do anything. After they score — done.”
No score was recorded during the two golden goal periods, and the 1-1 tie led the teams to a penalty shootout.
“I was excited for the possibility,” Harold said. “We had been practicing PKs (penalty kicks) at the end of practices, and I was confident, not nervous. I had faced that keeper in a shootout during a district tournament in high school and won, and I was confident in my teams shooting ability. We weren’t missing any [during practice].”
Harold came up huge, stopping the first two penalty kicks taken by WWU — the first was a shot high and to the right by the Viking’s Kim Cooper, then had a diving save to the bottom left side of the goal by WWU’s Miles. The only penalty kick that Western did convert came from their third kick-taker Kristin Maris.
“We had all the confidence in her during the PKs,” Diaz said. “She’s always on point with reading the kicker, and all her practice showed off during those PKs.”
The Falcons’ first three kick-takers were junior forward Heather Young, freshman forward Maddie Krauss and Shaw. With SPU leading 3-1 in the shootout, junior midfielder Arden Matro had the chance to win the game, and the title, for the Falcons.
“I was mentally preparing myself when we were in overtime and double overtime to take a PK,” Matro said. “I didn’t initially know the order, but I knew I was going to be one of the last ones. I didn’t realize it was to seal the deal.”
Matro did in fact seal the deal for the Falcons when she rocketed a goal to the right side of the goal out of the reach of Western’s goalie, giving SPU the 1-1 (4-1) win.
“We are a championship team,” Sekyra said. “They said, ‘We are getting it done.’ All their hard work was for this.”
The Falcons (14-5-1, 10-4 GNAC) earned an automatic spot in the NCAA tournament for winning the GNAC title. Sekyra has never gone a season without making it to the tournament, achieving that feat in every one of his 11 seasons.
“It’s so hard to get to the NCAA tournament,” Sekyra said. “It takes me back to the first year we went. A champion is going to be crowned, and I believe we can beat anyone in the country. I’ve got as good of a team as I have had the last four or five years.”
The team is confident going forward, as they start the journey toward becoming potential national champions.
“[The championship game] gives us a huge amount of confidence going forward,” Harold said, who won the GNAC tournament MVP award for her performance in the two games.
SPU, the No. 6 seed, faces No. 3 Sonoma State on Thursday in Bellingham. The winner will play No.2 WWU on Saturday.