FORT MYERS, Fla. – For 110 minutes on a blazingly hot day in south Florida, the Jacksonville University women’s soccer team stood firm against a relentless Florida Gulf Coast offensive attack. After the match ended in a scoreless double-overtime tie, it was onto penalty kicks, where the Dolphins refused to wilt against the pressure. Five JU players – Julia Burton, Miranda Fyfe, Hannah Hartman, Kaitlyn Bassett and Adriana Rodrigues – stepped up and buried their opportunities, giving Jacksonville a 5-3 victory on PKs and advancing the Dolphins to their first NCAA Tournament since 2006.
There were many stars on the day for Jacksonville, but no one shone more brightly than goalkeeper Sarah Sierra. The junior earned the title of Tournament MVP after making 10 saves on the afternoon and stepping away from goal countless times to clear away dangerous crosses.
For the opening half, Florida Gulf Coast spent much of the time on the attack but Jacksonville’s defense was up to the task. Of FGCU’s 11 shots in the first 45 minutes of the match, only four were on frame and those were all dealt with by Sierra to keep the Eagles off the board. As the half wore on, the Dolphins were able to find more and more space to break out of their own final third and try to counter against Gulf Coast, but JU ended with just one shot at the halftime whistle. The best opportunity came when Joy Grove played a through ball down the center of the field to Bassett as she made a run forward, but Brittany Brown left her line and made a sliding play on the ball to keep the match scoreless.
Jacksonville came out focused and hungry in the second half, immediately spending more time on the ball and earning its first corner kick within two minutes of the restart. A shot by Burton on frame was the first real scoring chance of the day for the Dolphins and signaled a bit of a turnaround after the difficult opening 45 minutes. After playing deep in FGCU’s final third for the first seven minutes of the half, the Eagles were able to unleash a counterattack that ended with an excellent opportunity for the league’s leading goal scorer Tabitha Tindell, but Sierra flew out of the six-yard box to slide in and deny the goal.
As the match moved into the middle of the second half, FGCU again regained control and pressed to find the lead. It took the heroic efforts of the entire Jacksonville defense – including a number of slide tackles from Ally Lee – to keep the Eagles off the board. But suddenly, as the minutes drained from the clock, the momentum swung again as the Dolphins remained fresh while Gulf Coast appeared to lose some of its drive. The link-up play down the right side between midfielders Grove and Jessica Cataldo-Ramirez and defender Ashley Poirier in particular caused issues for the FGCU defense and gave JU some vital minutes spent on the attack. No goal was forthcoming however, and the match moved into overtime tied 0-0 after 90 minutes.
Grove sent a shot in towards Brown within the first 30 seconds of the overtime period, but the Atlantic Sun Goalkeeper of the Year made the save to continue the contest. In the 96th minute, Bassett drove hard to the goal, fending off a number of would-be FGCU defenders along the way until she was taken down inside the 18-yard box. In a call that could have gone either way, the referee signaled play on and denied Jacksonville a chance for a win from the penalty spot.
In double overtime Sierra sacrificed her body for the team, coming out to punch a cross clear but taking a huge body blow from an oncoming FGCU forward. The Eagles sent three shots in during the dying seconds of the match, but nothing was on target, ending the match in a 0-0 draw and sending it to a penalty shootout.
For the first three rounds, the teams stood toe-to-toe. Burton, Fyfe and Hartman each stepped up and delivered for the Dolphins, while Melissa Arnold, Tabitha Tindell and Paulina Speckmaier did the same for Florida Gulf Coast. Jacksonville seized the match by the throat in the fourth round as Bassett drove a ball past Brown to take a 4-3 lead. Moments later, FGCU’s Brooke Sill sailed a shot wide to the right. That left the match on the boot of Rodrigues. The redshirt-senior showed her experience and poise, putting the ball low and left to deliver the win and set off a wild celebration in front of the silenced FGCU student section.
The Dolphins now will wait and find out the identity of their first round opponent in the NCAA Tournament on Monday. The NCAA Selection Show will be on NCAA.com tomorrow afternoon at 4:30 EST. The first round will be played on Nov. 15, 16 and 17 on campus sites around the country.
Atlantic Sun All-Tournament Team
Nicole Calder – Kennesaw State
Olivia Sturdivant – Kennesaw State
Washida Blackman – Mercer
Rachel Buffalo – Mercer
Emma Blackwell – Florida Gulf Coast
Tabitha Tindell – Florida Gulf Coast
Shannen Wacker – Florida Gulf Coast
Kaitlyn Bassett – Jacksonville
Joy Grove – Jacksonville
Ally Lee – Jacksonville
Sarah Sierra (MVP) – Jacksonville