After two winning two consecutive playoff matches, the Lady Flames are headed into the NCAA Final Four.
On Friday, Nov. 16, the Lady Flames took on Mississippi College in a Sweet Sixteen tournament match-up in the second division of the NCAA that will not soon be forgotten. The following Sunday, Nov. 18, the Lady Flames took out No.3, Columbus State, cementing their place is the Final Four.
On Friday, Mississippi came out with strategic, fast-paced passing skills at the start of the game, which helped them get the ball down field.
Lee initially struggled on defense thanks to the speed of opposing players such as Rita Okoro. Goalkeeper Taylor Green stepped up to play an outstanding game and was able to stop all 9 shots that came her way during the first half; nothing could get past her.
Green and the rest of the Lady Flames trained hard for this match.
“Preparing for this match took a lot of thought,” Green said. “We had played them before and have not done well. I just knew that if we came out and played like we have been recently there was no way they could stop us. Preparing wasn't as much physical as it was mental.”
On the offensive side of things, the Flames struggled to get the ball down field. The Flames were able to break up the defense twice during the first half to get shots off, but for the most part it was impossible to break through Mississippi’s defense.
Defender Laila Dilts said Mississippi outplayed the Lady Flames in the first half.
“We did not play our best game in the first half, so I was pretty discouraged coming into the locker room at halftime, but I was encouraged by the effort, persistence and drive we showed in the first half,” Dilts said. “Mississippi College played their best soccer in the first half, while we played our worst, yet it was still a tied game. We knew that if we could just go out there and play our game, we would win the game.”
Although the Lady Flames struggled in the first half, the team was able to match Mississippi’s level of gameplay in the second half. However, with help from Lauren Smith and Scarlett Hodges, Emma Furman from Mississippi was able to beam in the first goal of the match, putting Mississippi in the lead 1-0.
Midfielder Mia Hollingsworth was able to outrun her defender and gain a goal from the corner of the field, which tied the score 1-1 with 39:30 left on the clock.
“I will reiterate the idea for fans to not underestimate their impact,” Hollingsworth said. “The environment last night is what propelled us towards overcoming the one-goal deficit and I couldn’t be more grateful for the immense support.”
The Flames then started outpacing the defense and gaining more shots on goal, but Mississippi’s goalie was able to block those shots. This intensive stalemate continued throughout the second half, and the game went into overtime.
Hollingsworth said the little time to breathe between the game and overtime gave them the opportunity to get their energy up.
“We were extremely confident entering overtime, especially with our previous two victories being in overtime,” Hollingsworth said. “While many girls, including myself, were exhausted, it was nice to take a five-minute break and prepare for victory.”
At the start of the overtime round, Lee and Mississippi struggled to capitalize on offense, and both teams were fighting hard to get the ball downfield to no avail.
Once double overtime began, the Lady Flames began to dominate on offense. The Flames were relentless with their determination. However, with close to three minutes left in the period, the Flames were able to march down the field one more time and make history.
Finally, Hollingsworth was able to shoot the ball but watched it bounce off the goal post. Lauren Peters was able to save the day with one final shot, making the Lady Flames South Region Champions.
“It’s rewarding to be the first women’s sports team in Lee’s history to win a DII Region Title," said Hollingsworth.
With this huge victory, Lee advanced into Elite 8 of the NCAA Division II Tournament, which was set up as a historical matchup against Columbus State.
By Sunday, the Lady Flames defeated Columbus State. This game was a nail-biter to the very end. Thanks to Lauren Weimer’s goal and Taylor Green’s save after save, the Lady Flames came out on top.
This game really brought out the best in the Lady Flames, testing them both mentally and physically.
Despite the victory, Columbus State had control of the ball for most of the game, forcing the Flames to be on defense for most of the game. Head coach Chris Hennessey said Columbus State's gameplay requires a special kind of response.
“Columbus play a very unique style of soccer. They are a great team and well-coached,” Hennessey said. “In games like this, you have to concede something and try as best as you can to dictate the areas of the field you want them to play in.”
This victory sparked a fire in the students at Lee and put a sense of pride for this school. According to Hennessey, this game proved to the world the Lady Flames are here and leave everything on the field.
“I am proud of the team and what they have achieved this season,” said Hennessey. “What is exceptional about the athletes at Lee is that we all support each other. We saw many teams out there yesterday pushing us along.”
Despite the stunning victory, the journey is not over yet. The Lady Flames are in the Final Four and headed to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they will play Grand Valley. Hennessey said this match will be another test for the Lady Flames.
“Grand Valley in the Final Four will be a lot different,” Hennessey said. “Every team at this point of the season is there for a reason, so you are not going to be able to stop all shots, and we will have to continue to defend with resiliency like Sunday.”
The Lady Flames will face Grand Valley on Thursday, Nov. 29th.