Won’t be beat: Jackrabbits take the Summit with dramatic comeback

Nicole Hatcher sliding in to beat Denver goalkeeper Tina Vargas to the loose ball and sending it into the back of the net with 31 seconds left will forever be remembered in SDSU athletics lore as the Jackrabbits rallied to defeat Denver and win the Summit League Tournament.

For most of regulation it looked as if the Denver Pioneers would take advantage of their home field and avenge themselves after losing the regular season championship to the Jackrabbits at Fishback Soccer Park just eight days earlier.

“I do not think we started very well and they definitely were the calmer of the two teams,” said head coach Lang Wedemeyer. “We had a lot of nerves in the beginning that I think were hard to overcome.”

The Pioneers scored in the 22nd minute of play when Brooke Boothe knocked the ball past Nicole Inskeep off a corner kick.

“I think the girls never lost faith,” Wedemeyer said. “They knew that we were capable of getting back into the game little by little.”

Meanwhile, the Jackrabbits struggled to find any sort of rhythm offensively and spent the half largely on the defensive. Their best scoring chance came on a breakaway where Shelby Raper’s challenged shot was knocked wide of the net.

“The goalie unfortunately made a pretty good save; it was my left foot so it wasn’t as strong of shot as I could have gotten but that was unfortunate,” Raper said.

SDSU’s struggles continued into the second half. Denver started the half off with a pair of corner kicks which they failed to convert, but as the minutes ticked by it seemed to matter little as the Pioneers continued to maintain the possession and deny SDSU any scoring opportunities.  

“I think they played a pretty good game but I also think we were a little panicky on the attack,” Wedemeyer said. “I think some of our decision making wasn’t always the best. We weren’t poised at some of those moments.”

The tide turned for the Jacks with about 14 minutes left to play when Denver’s Caitlin Higgins went down with what appeared to be a neck injury suffered on a collision with her teammate. A seven minute stoppage in play followed before she was taken off the field on a stretcher.

“We changed our formation [during the stoppage],” Wedemeyer said. “We put an extra player at midfield and we were really committed to trying to get more numbers forward.”

Coming out of the stoppage of play, SDSU showed more life and fight, generating several scoring opportunities down the stretch.

Even so, time was not on their side and as the clock raced toward zero, the outlook began to dim for SDSU. Even so, none of the Jackrabbits were ready to quit.

“I was kind of like, ‘we got this guys,’” Raper said. “I had hope in my heart and we kept pushing. No matter how bad my legs might have been tingling, I knew that I only had those few minutes left and I had to give it all to my team.”

With less than 40 seconds left the magic happened. Delaney Ratcliffe sent a desperate kick towards the goal and Hatcher was there and beat Vargas to it in time to slide the ball past her into the back of the net.

“I was hoping someone could get on the end of that ball and finish it and Hatcher was there,” Ratcliffe said.

Hatcher was then swarmed in front of the goal by her teammates as the Jackrabbits celebrated their new life.

“From then on out I just knew we were going to win it,” Raper said. “Katie, Hatch and I all piled up, and then everyone else. I don’t even know what happened after that.”

That new life carried them into the first 10-minute overtime period which the Jacks seemed to control. SDSU did not score however, and after two scoreless overtimes the game went to penalty kicks.

“It [Hatcher’s goal] certainly was an infusion of adrenalin into our team,” Wedemeyer said. “[Going into overtime] we just talked about tactically what we needed to do to create some chances and to keep them off the board.”

The rules gave each team five penalty kicks, each being by a different player with the teams alternating kicks.

“I think we were full of hope [going into the penalty kicks],” Wedemeyer said. “The fact that we were given a lifeline at the end made us feel that anything was possible in those moments.”

Penalty kick tiebreakers weren’t something the Jackrabbits had to worry about practicing for during the regular season, but Wedemeyer said that they had practiced the situation a little bit going into the tournament.

Inskeep saved the first kick for the Jacks, but then gave up four straight goals, leaving the Summit League Championship again on Hatcher’s shoulders as she needed to find net to keep the Jacks alive.

Hatcher did indeed beat Vargas, who appeared to be playing with a bad leg following Hatcher’s game tying goal earlier in the game, and the Jacks stayed alive.

The game then went into sudden death Penalty kicks. Inskeep responded, saving Denver’s first opportunity and leaving it up to Thursday’s hero Tori Poole.

“A shout out to Nikkie for doing a great job in the goal,” Raper said. “We definitely had a lot of antsy players on that half of the line. We were all holding each other. … We were doing some chants of ‘we believe’ and saying our cheer that we do before every game. No matter what we had the right mindset about the whole issue.”

Poole did not disappoint her teammates, hands held as they waited behind her for a chance to celebrate, and she beat Vargas to give the Jackrabbits their second ever Summit League Tournament Championship and the chance to dance in the NCAA Tournament.

 “It certainly wasn’t maybe our best game, but it was probably one of the most thrilling for sure, the way that we were able to come back and put it into overtime and the PKs,” Wedemeyer said. “It certainly ranks up there among the best [games for the Jacks].”

The Summit League named Hatcher, Inskeep, Poole and Diana Potterveld to the All-Tournament team and gave MVP honors to Poole for her two goals in the semifinal game and championship-winning penalty kick.

SDSU will find out their NCAA Tournament destination when the field is announced Monday at 3:30 p.m. (CT).