NAU soccer claims Big Sky title

MISSOULA, Mont. — It took two goals in 90 minutes in 37-degree weather with rain showers on a slick playing field to come out as Big Sky Champions.

The Northern Arizona soccer team received goals from Emily Wadell and Haley Wingender and the Lumberjacks defeated Idaho State 2-1 to take home the Big Sky Title for the third time in school history. NAU has now clinched a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which will begin next week.  

"We knew Idaho State was going to be a really good team in a tournament setting," NAU coach Andre Luciano said. "They are dangerous with Ellsworth and Sanchez so we knew had to weather whatever storm they brought. I preached it was not going to be a pretty game with field conditions and weather so I told the girls to be gritty not pretty."

Wadell subbed into the game in the 20 minute mark and in the 24th minute Wadell gave NAU the 1-0 lead. Northern Arizona went on the offensive attack and Wadell pressured the Idaho State defense forcing a turnover and Wadell was able to put a clean strike on the ball atop the box for her second goal of the season.

"As soon as I got into the game I wanted to provide a really good work-rate," Wadell said. "I saw the ball bouncing around so I was able to cut in front of my defender and took a shot. I knew if I was called upon today I was going to give it my all and I left everything on the field."

Wingender had led the Big Sky all year in game-winning goals with six this season and she saved lucky number seven for the biggest game of the season. Wingender gave NAU the 2-0 lead when she received a through ball from Cierra Gamble that led to a Wingedner breakaway. Wingedner was able to maintain composure and place the ball between goalkeeper Sheridan Hapsic’s lead in the 69th minute.

"I saw Cierra take the ball down the field and if she played me a ball I knew I had one-on-one against the keeper," Wingender said. "This goal means the world to me. To be able to put the ball in the back of the net and secure our spot as Big Sky Champions is an awesome feeling."

It did not take long for the Bengals to respond scoring 18 seconds later off a goal from Lauren Bermudez in the box giving Idaho State their first goal of the game.

After the Bengals scored, they had 21 minutes left to score the equalizer but the Lumberjacks were able to limit Idaho State’s opportunities on goal and keep the ball out of the Northern Arizona half of the field. The Lumberjacks’ main task going into the game was stopping the combination of the Big Sky’s all-time leader in goals and points Amanda Ellsworth and super freshman Maria Sanchez. Both players only had three shots with only two shots on goal.   

"We played them before so knew exactly what they were going to do going in," goalie Natalie Gilbertson said. "They wanted this game so bad but we were not willing to let them win and we laid our bodies out for anything."

Idaho State dominated the first statistically controlling possession in the first half seven shots in the first 20 minutes of play with five corner kicks. Idaho State’s Maria Sanchez came close to scoring a goal in the 15th minute as she tried to go near post in the box but NAU’s Gilbertson came up with a big save to keep the score at 0-0.

"We knew that they were good on set pieces and we knew what our responsibilities were," Luciano said. "I thought we matched up when they were dangerous. Natalie came up with some huge saves for us and our whole team defended really well."

The Bengals ended the first half with nine shots and six corner kicks compared to only two shots from the Lumberjacks with one corner. Every senior played for the Lumberjacks in the game with Savannah BerryDiane Buzzard and Sarah Tarver starting the game and Mary Harrah and Malia Tano checking in as subs in the first half.

"We knew we had to play our hardest and give it our all to win today," Tarver said. "This is four years of going through so much pain and it has come down to this and it is all worth it."

This is the first conference title for Northern Arizona since 2009 when the Lumberjacks defeated Idaho State in Portland, Ore. and the third tournament title, all coached by Luciano.

"For the seniors that are here they had to rebuild a program and that is what they did," Luciano said. "It has been a four-year process of learning how to win again. I told the players before the season that they had the chance to be something special but it was not going to be easy; I was not easy on them and I was hard on them, challenged them and today is the result of that. I love these kids and for who they are and what they have become."

In the three games NAU played in Missoula, Mont. at the Big Sky tournament, the Lumberjacks scored seven goals while their opponents scored four. Throughout the 18 games during the regular season, NAU scored eight goals in the first half and in the three tournament games the Lumberjacks had four goals in the first half.

"Going into the weekend and the championship game we were never really nervous," said Torey Braly, who made the All-Big Sky Tournament Team. "We went into every game confident and our depth really showed this weekend. As coach Luciano would say, ‘It was a gutsy performance’."

NAU placed Braly, Diane Buzzard, Gilbertson, Gamble, Wadell and Wingender on the Big Sky All-Tournament Team. Wingender was named tournament MVP.

NAU now waits for the NCAA selection show on Monday to determine whom the Lumberjacks will face in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.