The Pronghorns women’s soccer season came to a close on Wednesday in the NJCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championship after a 5-1 loss to the No. 2 seed Eastern Florida State College Titans.
Competing in its first national tournament, Gillette College (17-3-1) went 1-1 in Melbourne, Florida. The team couldn’t make it out of pool play as undefeated Eastern Florida State (16-0) dominated with an aggressive offense and made the best of multiple scoring opportunities to keep Gillette from advancing.
“For us it was good to see what it takes to be a final four team, and potentially a national championship team,” Pronghorns coach Nate Ulness said. “They competed. They played hard. They didn’t give up, so we’re proud of them for that.”
The Pronghorns were the underdog story of the tournament. They went unranked the entire season until Nov. 4 in the playoffs when they were ranked for the first time at No. 17. They went on to upset the Iowa Western Reivers for the district championship and took a No. 7 seed into the tournament of 12 teams.
The goal at the start of the season for this Pronghorns team was to make it to the Region IX championship game, one step ahead of what the group did a year before.
“That’s a win in itself, and letting people know we’re a Top 10 program,” Ulness said. “We’re on the map. We’re here to stay and it’s just pushing forward.”
The Titans, who are hosting the tournament at Orlando Health Stadium, pounced on the Pronghorns right off the start of the clock Wednesday. Titans’ midfielder Aida Illas delivered a corner kick from the right side, and teammate Julieta Limardo got a foot on it. Limardo’s kick crossed Pronghorns’ goalkeeper Nia Trejo and went bottom-left for a 1-0 lead in the first minute of play.
“The first goal was definitely a, ‘Woah, can’t believe that just happened.’ We weren’t ready for it at all,” Trejo said. “It definitely caught us by surprise.”
The Pronghorns woke up after the first goal, and neither team scored for more than 35 minutes.
Then, the Pronghorns scored one of their most out-of-the-ordinary goals of the season when Kelsey Hogan put a head to a headed pass from teammate Mary Niedzwiecki. The shot went over Titans’ keeper Kiera Gibson with 8:28 left to play in the first half.
Gibson led all of NJCAA Division I women’s soccer in virtually every goalie statistic going into the game. She tallied a 92.6 save percentage and allowed four goals on the season before Hogan’s header. Shyley Hunter sent a crossing pass to Niedzwiecki to set up the header-to-header goal.
The 1-all tie was short lived, and Eastern Florida State came bearing down on Trejo and the Pronghorns defense to score two more goals — one from freshman forward Paula Garrido and the other from freshman midfielder Viena Massale — in the final 8 minutes of the half.
In the second half, the Titans opened up strong again and Illas scored on a penalty kick in the first 16 seconds to make for a 4-1 Titans lead. With 28:01 to play, Limardo scored her second goal of the game to cap the scoring at 5-1.
The Pronghorns couldn’t get any offense going, which helped knock them out of the tournament.
“I honestly think It was just because we weren’t clicking as a team. There was nothing that Florida’s done that we haven’t seen already,” Trejo said. “Yeah, they were a tough team to play and stuff, but we could’ve stayed with them the whole time.”
Three of the Titan’s four goal scorers are natives of Spain, and 11 of the players on the roster are from outside the United States. The Pronghorns didn’t have any international players on this season’s roster, something uncommon of teams in the national tournament.
Laramie County Community College, the only other Wyoming team in the tournament, was defeated 3-2 by Monroe College earlier Wednesday to put an end to its season as well.
Gillette College started the tournament Tuesday with a 4-1 victory over No. 11 Community College of Baltimore County Essex. Forward Jaycie Greene and Hogan led the Pronghorns with a goal and an assist each during the tournament.
Greene finished the season with a team-high 21 goals and 49 points.
Now that the season is over, another important part of junior college soccer can begin — getting sophomore players signed to four-year universities.
Midfielder Irie Elliot, who signed at Hastings College earlier in the season, is the only player who has chosen a new program so far. Ulness said that other sophomores have gotten interest as well.
Ulness expects most, if not all, of the freshmen to stay for their sophomore seasons. The top four Pronghorns point scorers and the goalkeeper were freshmen this season.
“There’ll be big expectations for them put on their shoulders,” Ulness said. “So (it’s) making sure they’re ready and ready to get the next crop of freshmen bought into the system and committed to playing Pronghorn soccer.”