By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
Baylor soccer is on a collision course with destiny. On Sunday evening at Ellis Field in College Station, the Bears’ destiny was the program’s first ever trip to the Elite Eight.
After squandering a 2-0 lead in the second half and being forced into overtime by the Fighting Irish, senior defender Precious Akanyirige sent Baylor Nation into a frenzy when she picked up the rebound off a corner kick from senior midfielder Caitlin Schwartz and delivered the game-winner past Notre Dame senior goalkeeper Lexi Nicholas to give the Bears a 3-2 win.
Baylor head coach Paul Jobson said that it has been a thrill to be a part of this team as its special season continues.
“Thank God for another opportunity to be with these guys. I don’t know what to say, honestly. But, God has been good to us this year. We’ve been through a lot, and this is a special group. Not because we’re winning, but we’re winning because this is a special group,” Jobson said. “I couldn’t be more proud of these girls. They’re doing this, their leadership right now is right where it needs to be. And everybody’s influence has been right on top of things and just really doing the things they need to do, the details and all that.
Baylor owned overtime as the Bears controlled offensive possession and outshot Notre Dame 5-0.
Prior to Akanyirige’s winning goal, the Bears came out firing at the Irish in overtime, tallying four shots in the first three minutes, with one hitting the crossbar and one sailing just high over the net.
With the win, Baylor has booked Durham, N.C. as its next destination, as the Bears will matchup with the No. 1 seed Duke, who defeated fellow Big 12 conference foe Texas Sunday afternoon.
Duke, who has outscored its opponents 11-0 in three NCAA Tournament games thus far, including a 7-0 win over Big 12 regular season champ Oklahoma State on Nov. 12.
Jobson said that the Bears are embracing the challenge and look forward to playing one of the elite programs in the country.
“I’m excited about it. They’re a fantastic team. I spent some time with their coaches this summer. They told me all their secrets. I think they’ve lost two games this year. They’re one of the No. 1 seeds. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. We’ve been able to beat some really good teams so far, and we’re ready for the next challenge,” Jobson said. “We’re not Oklahoma State and we’re not the University of Texas. We put three on Oklahoma State as well. We can score goals. We’re very good defensively as well. I wouldn’t compare us to the other Big 12 schools. All of a sudden there’s more on the line and these girls have their own identity and we’ll see how that plays out.”
Getting to overtime took a rollercoaster ride with the Fighting Irish in which both teams took advantage of scoring chances and also came up with big defensive plays to stay in the match.
After an early opportunity from junior midfielder Kennedy Brown in the opening minute sailed high, Notre Dame took control offensively, putting the pressure on the Baylor defense.
Sophomore forward Natalie Jacobs had a shot in the 8th minute, but Baylor blocked it in the box. In the 11th minute, freshman goalkeeper Jennifer Wandt made the save. Jacobs continued pursuit, missing a header wide left in the 14th minute and then wide right in the 18th minute.
After surviving the barrage of shots from Jacobs, Baylor began to find some rhythm offensively. Senior midfielder Aline De Lima got the first Baylor shot on goal in the 25th minute, but Nicholas made the save.
With the first half coming to a close quickly, De Lima found junior forward Lauren Piercy from outside the left corner of the penalty area and Piercy netted her fifth goal of the season to put the Bears in front 1-0 in the 42nd minute.
Notre Dame had an opportunity to answer in the final minute, but Baylor’s defense came up with the stop and nearly led to a second Baylor goal.
After some nifty passing from De Lima found Piercy, who then fired past Nicholas. However, after review, the goal was waved off because the ball hadn’t crossed the backline before time ran out in the half.
Baylor came out aggressive in the second half, as Piercy put one on goal in the 47th minute, but Nicholas came up with the save. However, Brown grabbed the rebound and fired it past Nicholas from six yards out, putting the Bears in front 2-0.
Brown said that the Baylor mindset is to remain aggressive and take advantage of opportunities when you get them.
“We kind of pride ourselves on working our butts off to get the ball in the goal,” Brown said. “Whenever I saw the ball crossing, I just saw the opportunity to put it in, because I knew Julie (James) was pressing really hard. Paul [Jobson] tells us, ‘One press, we all press.’ So, I kind of put the ball in the back of the net when I could.”
That lead wouldn’t last long, as senior midfielder Taylor Klawunder connected from 20 yards out, cutting the Baylor lead to 2-1 in the 54th minute.
Then in the 58th minute, sophomore forward Jennifer Westendorf scored her 10th goal of the season from straight away, tying the game at two.
In the 77th minute, sophomore forward Camryn Wendlandt had a chance with the header, but Nicholas dove to her right to make the save and keep the game tied and eventually sending it into overtime, something the Bears are used to having played in 11 overtime matches during the season and three that went to double-overtime.
Baylor won the shot battle 19-13 over Notre Dame, including 8-3 on goal and 6-4 on corner kicks. However, it wasn’t all crisp for the Bears, as they committed 14 fouls to just four for Notre Dame, including getting two yellow cards.
Despite the four-minute lapse in the second half where Notre Dame struck and scored twice and several of the aggressive fouls by Baylor, the Bears did enough to win and that is something that Baylor will celebrate.
Akanyirige said it’s all been about playing for each other and playing for one more game.
“It’s awesome,” Akanirige said. “Like we’ve been saying this whole season, we’re just playing and fighting to play with each other for another game. It was a whole team effort the entire time. So, it was just great the result that we’ve been working hard for.”
Baylor (15-5-3) will meet Duke (21-2-0) at 6 p.m. Friday at Koskinen Stadium in Durham N.C. with a spot in the Final Four on the line.