As her team’s bus rumbled between Salt Lake City and Billings last Wednesday, Jessica Harris felt confident.
The Griffins, who endured some mid-season difficulties, would need three consecutive victories to win the NAIA Unaffiliated Group Tournament.
“We had a lot of new players, some transfers, so it took time. In the last couple of weeks, everything started to align,’’ Harris said. “Even before the tournament, I just knew this wasn’t going to be my last weekend of soccer.”
Harris made sure of it, knocking home a header in the 31st minute to give Westminster a 1-0 victory against Rocky Mountain College in the championship match on Wendy’s Field on Saturday.
The Griffins (11-7-2) advance to the NAIA national tournament for the second time in three years. First-round pairings will be announced on Nov. 17 and matches will begin Nov. 23.
Westminster has won four straight, all by shutout. The Griffins beat Presentation (9-0), Carroll College (2-0) and Rocky in a three-day span.
Rocky finishes 13-5-2.
“It feels amazing,’’ Harris said of scoring the game-winner that sent her team to nationals. “This couldn’t be better.”
When Tiana Cerciello’s long cross sailed by the goal, Harris took a few steps back to prepare herself for a potential shot attempt. Teammate Lexie Tucker delivered a perfect feed from the left side for Harris to score her seventh goal of the season.
“Headers, that’s kind of my thing,’’ said the senior defender. “I knew it was in. It was the perfect play.”
Through the entire match, the Griffins were a step quicker to the ball than the Battlin’ Bears. “We won the 50-50 balls,’’ Harris added. “Everybody was so focused.
“We wanted to keep the ball on the ground, use our feet. Rocky likes to use the long ball and we knew they could score quickly.”
Rocky had a few chances, but Westminster goalkeeper Abi Yanke made a diving stop on a shot by Evalina Abert, while Sydney Galletti’s attempt went wide right and Jaelene Zygmond’s went over the goal.
“We seemed a little bit off, a little sluggish,’’ said Battlin’ Bear coach Richard Duffy. “I don’t think we had our legs. We had put such a big effort in Friday’s game.”
Rocky was coming off a 2-1 double-overtime win against Jamestown that went 101 minutes.
“They created a lot of opportunities. They could have scored three, four more goals,’’ added the Rocky coach.
The Griffins had two shots bounced directly off the crossbar and Harris had a shot that curled just to the left in the second half.
The win also gave the season advantage to Westminster. The two teams tied 1-1 when they played Oct. 6 in Billings. The Battlin’ Bears rallied for a 2-1 victory exactly two weeks later when the teams played at Westminster. It is the last time the Griffins have lost.
“That kind of fueled our fire. We didn’t want that to happen again,’’ said Harris, who was slowed by a concussion earlier in the season. “I feel great now.”
Rocky returns most of its lineup next season, starting only three seniors on Saturday.
“After losing 10 seniors from last year’s team, I thought this was going to be a rebuilding year,’’ Duffy said. “The girls surprised me with 13 wins. This year turned out well. I can’t wait until next year with the group we have coming back.”