BILLINGS — After the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears lost in the Cascade Collegiate Conference women's soccer final two weeks ago, they were nervous.
"We never thought we would make it this far, so actually being here is just amazing," said senior forward Lauryn Gamache.
Rocky didn't get the league's automatic bid to the NAIA National Championships, so it had to wait for the selection show to see if it would get an at-large bid, a long wait for an unranked team which hadn't been there in 11 years. But the Bears received the final seed in Omaha, Nebraska, and something clicked.
"When we went to Nebraska, I feel like we played more with heart than with skill," said junior goalkeeper Maia Wetzel. "We really, really, really wanted the games."
Rocky beat MidAmerica Nazarene 2-0 in the first game, led in shots by Gamache, who broke the school's all-time scoring record earlier this month. Not bad for a walk-on.
"I actually didn't even come here to play soccer," Gamache said. "My parents honestly bribed me."
"She showed up on our doorstep in January one year and said she wants to start playing soccer again," said head coach Richard Duffy. "She has a natural ability to score goals - very talented kid. I'll be blessed if I can get another kid with that ability at some point in my program."
"It's been rocky, no pun intended," Gamache chuckled when asked how her career has been, "but it's been good. Obviously beating school records, I can't put it into words."
Gamache led Rocky in shots again in Saturday's game against No. 12 Midland University, but the team couldn't break through this time. But neither could the Warriors, thanks to Wetzel's 14th shutout of the season, extending her record.
"She kind of ticks all the boxes as far as what we're looking for in a modern-day goalkeeper," Duffy said. "She's super athletic - she'll get to stuff a lot of goalkeepers wouldn't get to. She keeps us in games because of that."
So a shootout would decide it, and you'll never guess who stepped up to take Rocky's first penalty kick - and buried it.
"Maia as our keeper taking the first PK throws them off a little bit," Gamache said.
"She's ice cold in front of goal when she steps up there," Duffy added. "Grabs the ball, puts it down, and puts it in the corner."
"I feel like I kind of numb myself to everyone else," Wetzel said. "I do it to help my team's confidence and show them that we can do it, no matter what. If a keeper can do it, then outfield players can, too."
Of course then she had to turn around do her full-time job, and she did, saving Midland's fourth and fifth penalties to clinch the win.
"It's funny because every single time I've ever won a PK shootout ever, I never know I win until I see my team running at me," Wetzel said. "Because I'm so zoned out from everything else, I don't even keep track of the scores. So it's awesome because that happens every time - I'll save it, and then I'll look up and see everyone running at me and I know we did it."
It'll be a feeling unlike any other if they can do it again. Rocky next plays Keiser (Fla.) University, the No. 1 team in the country that scored eight goals in its opening-round win.
"They'll be incredibly talented, no doubt," Duffy said. "I'm still trying to work out in my head if we go at them and play the way we normally play, or if we kind of park the bus in front of goal and see what happens. But I think going down there, why not try and go for it and get that win?"
"We've been the underdog, and look where we are now, so anything can happen," Gamache added.
"I just know that we're going to give it all we got, and I feel like they are going to be very surprised," said Wetzel with a smile.
That Round of 16 game is set for Tuesday, Dec. 3 at 10 a.m. Mountain Time in Orange Beach, Alabama.