BELLINGHAM - For nearly four full games this year against Seattle Pacific - plus an overtime period and a shootout - there hasn't been an instant that Western Washington University women's soccer coach Travis Connell's heart hasn't been in his throat.
That's what two one-goal wins during the regular season and a shootout loss in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship game will do to you.
But finally, for almost the final two minutes of the Vikings' NCAA Division II West Sub-Regional second-round showdown with the Falcons on a chilly Saturday afternoon, Nov. 16, at Orca Field, Connell actually got to sit back and enjoy facing his team's rival.
Senior Anna Geldenhuys gave him and the rest of the team that luxury when she found the back of the net with 1 minute, 54 seconds remaining to give second-seeded WWU a 2-0 victory, sending the ninth-ranked Vikings on to next week's West Regional final for the second straight year and the third time in the program's history.
"The only time I was relaxed was the last minute of this game in all four games we've played this year," Connell said. "We respect them as opponents. No one in our conference has been in as many tournament games and won as many tournament games as they have. They're well coached. We knew it was going to take everything we had to get the win today."
Seattle Pacific may be in the rear-view mirror now, but there are still plenty of opponents left to worry about.
Next up is fourth-seeded Cal State San Bernardino, which handed No. 1 seed Cal State Stanislaus its first loss of the season 1-0 in overtime on Saturday.
The beauty of that win is that, rather than traveling to California, Western (18-1-1) will get to host the regional final at a date and time to be determined, as well as the national quarterfinal that will follow against the South Central Region champion.
"We're so honored," said Stephanie Hamilton, who gave Western the lead 31 minutes into Saturday's game. "We really worked hard this season, so it's amazing that we get to host it here."
While Connell admits to feeling a bit anxious throughout most of Saturday's game, the Vikings wanted to make sure Seattle Pacific coach Chuck Sekyra was just as uncomfortable.
WWU controlled the early action, keeping the ball in the Falcons' end of the field throughout most of the first 30 minutes.
"That's the way we play," Connell said. "If we're not the aggressor, something's going to be wrong with us that day. ... We want to put teams on their heels. We want pin them back in their own end. We want to intimidate them. We call it growing the doubt in the opponent, and a lot of that is how you come out. We paint the picture of leaning forward running downhill at your opponent."
Though Western attempted six shots in the first 30 minutes, including a nice heading attempt by Catherine Miles in the 18th minute and another header off a corner by Kristin Maris two minutes later, none of them were on goal.
In fact it wasn't until the 31st minute that Maris was able to put the Vikings' first shot on net. SPU goalie Natalie Harold made the save, but a wild scramble ensued in the Falcons' box.
"The ball came in, and then it popped out," Hamilton said of the scrum in front of the SPU net. "Elise (Aylward) did an amazing job just to lay it back, and I just saw an opening and I placed in there."
That opening was to the lower left corner of the goal, and Hamilton's blast from about 14 feet was perfect for her second goal of the season.
It was also Hamilton's second goal in NCAA postseason play, as she scored the overtime game winner against Cal Poly Pomona in the first round of last year's tournament.
But the most amazing part of the goal was the drop pass by Aylward.
"Elise did a nice job," Connell said. "I mean, here's a freshman in the box in the biggest game of her life, and she has the composure to not force it but to drop it back, and Stephanie finished it off nicely."
With the lead in hand, Western turned the game over to its defense, which included GNAC Defensive Player of the Year Brianna Jones and goalie Alyssa Beauchamp, who recorded her fifth complete-game shutout of the season and the team's eighth.
"The defense played great," Beauchamp said. "I couldn't have asked for a better back line. I know no matter what, they're going to be there holding down the fort and giving their all to make sure no one gets past them. And if they do, that's what I'm there for. There's a lot of trust there."
Beyond trust, Connell said there was also a big improvement for a unit that has yielded only eight goals this season (0.4 per game).
"We worked a lot on our cover this week," Connell said. "We had some issues being one-v-one a little too often. Even though we've had a great record defensively, you can always improve, and today they did. They took what we were working on on the training ground and brought it to the match."
Western ended up out shooting the Falcons 7-4.
Maris led the Vikings with four shots, but it was a nice feed to Aylward, who in turn found Geldenhuys on another nice assist pass that allowed Western to get a little breathing room.
"We knew coming in that we had to put all our effort into it," Hamilton said. "There's no going back. If you lose this game, you can't move on, so you just give it everything you've got. We just knew what it meant to all of us and we put our heart into this game. We all wanted to be here and try our hardest."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.