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Redhawks down Samford in shootout to win OVC tournament
The Regular-season champions also won the OVC tournament with a 5-3 advantage in a shootout.
A questionable call that resulted in a penalty kick put Southeast Missouri State's hopes of earning its second straight NCAA tournament berth in serious jeopardy.
But instead of getting down, the Redhawks were more determined than ever to not let that one play beat them.
"Throughout this whole year we've been playing together and sticking together," senior forward Alaina Lacopo said. "We knew if we stuck together we'd be fine."
The Redhawks stuck together enough to overcome Samford's penalty-kick goal early in the second half as Southeast tied the contest 1-1 with under seven minutes remaining, which is the way things stood through two sudden-death overtimes.
Top-seeded Southeast went on to beat second-seeded Samford 5-3 in penalty kicks in Sunday's championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament at Houck Stadium.
The Redhawks, also the OVC regular-season champions, repeated as OVC tournament champs to claim the league's automatic NCAA berth for the second year in a row.
"It's very exciting," senior goalkeeper Lindsay Pickering said. "We showed a lot of character."
Southeast (13-2-2) will carry a 12-match unbeaten streak into the NCAA tournament. The Redhawks will find out who and where they play tonight when the bracket is announced.
"This season is amazing," Southeast coach Heather Nelson said. "They continue to make me so proud of them."
It took Southeast double-overtime to beat Samford 1-0 on Oct. 28 in the game that decided the OVC regular-season crown, so again there didn't figure to be much difference between the squads in Sunday's rematch.
There wasn't, which made Samford's goal by Cindy Spiker on a penalty kick about 13 minutes into the second half loom particularly large.
The referee ruled that Spiker was taken down in the penalty box on a play that appeared virtually identical to when Southeast freshman forward Ashley Runion was taken down in the box late in the first half. But in that case, there was no whistle.
"It's tough to get behind, and it almost seems worse when it's a penalty kick," Lacopo said. "But we knew if we kept at it we could tie it up."
The Redhawks probably cut things a bit too close for their fans, who watched nervously as Southeast pressed the attack.
But the Redhawks finally broke through with just six minutes, 50 seconds remaining in regulation.
Off a free kick, Lacopo directed a ball toward the net, where Runion went high and headed it past Samford keeper Cayley Winters.
"I knew if I put it up there, somebody would get up there and get it," said Lacopo, Southeast's career leader in assists who recorded her OVC-high ninth helper of the season.
Said Runion, who leads the OVC in points after netting her team-high 11th goal of the season: "We made eye contact. It was perfect."
Neither squad scored the rest of regulation, and the same went for the two 10-minute sudden-death overtime periods.
Which meant that, after 110 minutes of dead-even soccer, an NCAA berth would be decided through the quirky form of penalty kicks as five players were poised to take cracks for each squad.
Southeast shot first, and junior Megan McGrath set the early tone by beating Winters.
Samford's first shooter, Colette Nammour, failed to answer as she sent a ball well over the crossbar.
It was just the break the Redhawks needed.
"That was a relief. I'm sure it gave a lot of us positive thoughts," said Pickering, the OVC's top keeper who is the conference's career leader in shutouts. "The pressure is on the shooter, not the goalie, in penalty kicks."
Given that opening, the Redhawks never let the Bulldogs (15-5) recover.
The next three shooters for both teams -- senior Molli Beard, Lacopo and sophomore Courtney Alexander did the honors for Southeast -- all found the net, leaving the Redhawks ahead 4-3 in the shootout.
Southeast junior Casey Kraft was up next, and if she scored, the match would be over.
Kraft made no mistake, sliding a low shot into the right corner. Almost instantly, her teammates rushed the field to celebrate with her.
"It was pretty funny, because I was so focused and so concentrated on just making the shot, at first I didn't realize I was last," Kraft said. "I said, 'Oh yeah, I'm the last shooter, if I make it, we win.' "
She made it, and the Redhawks won.
And now Southeast is headed to its second straight NCAA tournament.
"My senior year, it's an unbelievable feeling," said Lacopo, one of seven Southeast seniors.