GEORGETOWN, Texas – With their first SCAC Women's Soccer Championship on the line in a double-overtime penalty kick shootout, the Southwestern University Pirates put their hopes in the hands of senior goalkeeper Mary Cardone.
In her four years at Southwestern, fewer hands have been safer than the four-time All-SCAC goalkeeper, sporting a career .858 save percentage and leading the conference this year at .881.
Needing a goal to keep the Trinity University Tigers' bid for a 11th consecutive SCAC Championship alive, Molly Sheridan sent the ball towards the left corner against Cardone. Four years of instincts honed as a dual sport star in soccer and tennis kicked in for Cardone, who corralled the ball in those steadfast hands and in doing so, wrapped her team in glory.
Students, faculty, staff, and families rushed the field in jubilation, celebrating the first SCAC Conference Championship in program history.
"It's just surreal," Cardone said after the match, shortly before being mobbed by teammates.
In front of their home crowd, the Pirates opened the match with control of possession through the first six minutes, keeping the ball in Trinity's back defensive third with multiple throw-ins on the side of the pitch opposite the bench.
Through it all, the Trinity defense held firm, holding the Pirates to a single shot on goal by Juliana Chapa, which was stopped by Trinity goalie Paige Wallace.
Once the initial Southwestern surge dissipated, Trinity stepped comfortably into its possession-dominant offense, getting its first significant push off a corner kick seven minutes into the match. Nyah Shepherd sent the corner true to the front of the net, finding the head of teammate Camryn Beall, whose shot was turned away by Cardone.
A little under six minutes later, Cardone leapt into the fray of another Trinity corner kick, punching the ball away before a Tiger could lay head or foot on it.
"A goalkeeper at this level with Mary Cardone's talent is the difference between winning a game or not," Head Coach Linda Hamilton said. "Having her level of experience, talent, and leadership combine to really help this team gain confidence and achieve the goals they've set for themselves.
"At the start of every game, she already gives you a chance to not lose. The job of the rest of the players is to give her a chance to win."
Though Cardone set the foundations for a victory with 12 saves in 110 minutes, defeating Trinity was a team effort.
It was about Juliana Chapa winning individual matchups in the defensive back third corner with physicality and clearing the ball with finesse on long runs to get the Pirates out of danger. And Whitney Whitehill sprinting the length of the field to the point of exhaustion for the sort of long runs that can keep an opponent honest and not push too far forward in its attack. Or, the midfielders, forwards, and defenders playing defense on a string, swarming around the ball whenever Trinity pulled at the seams.
"When you're a team sport, it's on everybody," Hamilton said. "It's the defender who wins the ball and makes the right pass to the midfielder who finds the forward. We're a young team but the youth does a great job of supplementing these really talented upper classmen"
For four years, Romie Reyna has patrolled the back line of the Pirate defense, anchoring it with Cardone. Saves might be the lone defensive statistic in the box score but the most effective defense isn't about shots stopped but those prevented.
Reyna poured everything out in the last home match of her collegiate career, putting out fires before they could spark with sliding tackles and disrupting the Trinity passing lanes.
"It was an amazing experience," Reyna said. "To win like this in our senior year is just unbelievable."
The senior class was the first recruited by Coach Hamilton, laying the foundations that raised the ceiling of this women's soccer program.
"It always takes a courageous group to want to be the first to do some things and they took a leap of faith on my staff as much as we took a leap of faith on them," Hamilton said. "The quality of athlete and competitor they are, players who've played with them see the best these players have to offer and really want to live up to that legacy."
In the aftermath of the Pirates' championship victory, the affection for Cardone was obvious as teammates swarmed her, thanking her for the standard she's set at Southwestern.
Cardone arrived at Southwestern in part to play two sports and in part to make her own legacy after her older brother, Matt, had an All-American career as goalkeeper for Trinity.
The best athletes are all remembered by signature games and Cardone's performance against Trinity was one for the ages, stopping a one-on-one attack on the right side early in the second half and, in perhaps the most important moment of the game, stopping a penalty kick by Kristen Canepa at the 75:14 mark to preserve the shutout.
Trinity outshot Southwestern 24-4 for the match, gaining a 10-3 advantage in corner kicks. But for all the numbers in their favor, the Tigers lacked the magic of Cardone.
"To me, she's the best goalkeeper in Division III soccer. She's made saves where I don't know how she did it but she just gets her hand up," Coach Hamilton said. "She's an unbelievable athlete, a tremendous competitor. She was born with some gifts but my real admiration is how she works at her craft every day to be the best she can be."
Once the match went into penalty kicks, the Southwestern fans lined up along the sidelines, confident in a tense moment.
Ariel Mansholt, Sarah McGinn, and Sam Davis connected on the first three Pirate penalty kicks to take an early 3-2 lead. Southwestern missed two consecutive misses, allowing Trinity to tie it at 3-3 after five.
With the match on the line, the crowd began to shout, "Mary! Mary! Mary!"
In coming to Southwestern to make a name for herself, Cardone's name resonated throughout the soccer field and the Pirates would find themselves with a new moniker. Champions.