BILLINGS — Rocky Mountain College is ready for the opportunity that awaits on Tuesday in Orange Beach, Alabama.
And, the Bears are embracing the underdog role.
For the first time in program history, the Battlin’ Bears have advanced to the final event site of the NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championships.
Rocky (14-4-3) will play No. 2 seed and top-ranked Keiser University (20-1) in the second round on Tuesday at 10 a.m. Mountain time.
The Battlin’ Bears, an at-large selection for the national tournament after finishing second at the Cascade Collegiate Conference tourney, advanced to the second round after posting a 2-0 win over 18th-ranked MidAmerica Nazarene (Kansas) Nov. 22 and a penalty kick shootout victory against No. 12 Midland University (Nebraska) on Nov. 23 during opening-round play in Omaha, Nebraska. Midland had a bye entering the second game of the opening round.
Keiser, located in West Palm Beach, Florida, received a bye in the first opening-round match and then scored an 8-1 win over The Masters University (California) on Nov. 23 in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Bears keeper Maia Wetzel said Rocky’s resume speaks for itself.
“We aren’t a joke and just a team from Montana, we have everything every other good team has to win a national championship,” she said.
Sixteen teams remain in contention for the championship. The quarterfinals are Dec. 4 and the semifinals are Dec. 6. The championship match is Dec. 7.
Rocky 18th-year coach Richard Duffy said the Bears aren’t content just playing at the final event site.
“We are playing the No. 2 seed in the tournament,” he said. “If you want to win a national championship you have to go through the No. 1 team in the country. We’re not just happy being there, now we want to try and win the tournament.”
Duffy said one of the Bears’ strengths is they have eight seniors on the team, including six senior starters in defenders Alexis Robbins, Lauren Cornwall and Ellen Hunsaker; midfielders Mhari Smith and Alyssa Schneider; and forward Lauryn Gamache.
Gamache and Cornwall are the captains. Cornwall is a Billings West graduate. Gamache became Rocky’s all-time goals, assists and points leader this season.
Wetzel set season records for goalie wins in a season (14), shutouts in a season (14) and saves in a season (90).
Redshirt junior Rita Marshall is another key defender.
“This year’s success came from the buy-in of everybody on our roster,” Duffy said, noting 10 of 11 starters last weekend were juniors or seniors.
The 14 victories Rocky has posted this year ties the school season record, which the Bears also accomplished in 2008 and 2012. The women’s soccer program at Rocky began in 1999. The only previous appearance at the national tourney for the Bears came in 2008 when Simon Fraser downed Rocky 1-0 in double overtime in the opening round.
While the Bears would like nothing more than to win the championship, first they’ll need to get through Keiser.
“I haven’t seen them play, but obviously I know they are a quality team,” Gamache said. “It won’t be easy and we will have to battle and give it our all. I have no doubt we can win this game. We’ve been an underdog all year and came out on top, so why not keep it going.”