Senior forward Mariana Garcia of The Citadel entered the Bulldogs’ final non-conference match on Wednesday with six goals in six games. She left it midway through the first half leaning on the team’s athletic trainer, grimacing in pain.
And so a few minutes later, senior Ruth Leiva, the only other player to score for the Bulldogs in 2013, slipped into a momentary gap in the Winthrop Eagles’ back line and banged in a shot from the center of the box to put The Citadel on top.
It wouldn’t get any easier for the home team at Washington Light Infantry Field, who surrendered consecutive goals to the Eagles of Rock Hill in the 38th and 69th minutes, and found themselves scrambling late to salvage a point without their only consistent goal scorer. Coach Bob Winch needed someone to stand tall in the waning minutes, and with just eight minutes remaining, the smallest player on the field stepped up with the biggest play of the afternoon.
Central midfielder Ana Mesa, a junior who is generously listed at 5-4, settled a pass from Leiva, cut through a converging swarm of Eagles defenders, and fired from distance.
Winthrop red-shirt freshman goalkeeper Amelia Henderson, who finished the day with five saves and all-round solid performance, had no play. It took a lot of pushing and a calculated risk along their back line, but the Bulldogs were back level after chasing the game for most of the second half.
Despite the heroics by Leiva and Mesa, the two overtime periods largely belonged to the games’ two freshmen keepers. New Zealander Naomi Carter, who finished the day with eight saves for The Citadel, denied Samantha Prytulak of Winthrop in the first frame, diving to kill that chance. In the second overtime, Carter killed another one-on-one threat, and plucked a late try by leaping high off her line. She enters Southern Conference play with 60 saves to her credit.
Two Citadel players had chances to snatch full points in overtime, but Henderson was able to stop shots by junior midfielder Flo Amess and winger Lea Raedle, a 5-7 freshman from Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany.
“It wasn’t pretty, but I just told the girls that if you work hard you always have a chance,” Winch said afterwards. “And I thought they did that. I thought they worked very hard. I thought our bench really helped us out.”
Of course, the story of Wednesday’s game was really the story of Garcia’s injury. The 5-5 Garcia has been the Bulldog’s offense in 2013, and when she crumpled to the ground after a collision with Eagles’ midfielder Megan David, clutched her left knee and began writhing on the grass, The Citadel’s hopes went down with her.
Garcia left the field with assistance and was examined on the sideline before being taken for treatment before the start of the second half.
“One of the things we emphasized at halftime is just, we can’t replace her, but if you work like her, you’ll be fine,” Winch said. “She’s such a hard worker.”
With Garcia out, the balance of play shifted ominously toward the Eagles as the game wore on. Leiva’s goal, her second of 2013, put the Bulldogs ahead for just two minutes and three seconds. After conceding two consecutive goals, much of the possession, and the shot battle, the Bulldogs were hanging on by a thread late until Leiva found Mesa running the deep central channel at 81:55.
“(Garcia is) a forward and we were really fabricating some people up top,” Winch said, explaining the shift in possession. “We’re asking midfielders to play up top, and obviously it’s just different in terms of holding the ball and keeping possession. I thought Winthrop’s two center backs were excellent.
The difference in the team before and after Garcia’s injury, Winch said, was just the ability to hold the ball up top. “When we play the ball forward, somebody has to be able to hold it up top. But to the girls’ credit, when we were down a goal we changed to three in the back, and Ana Mesa had a great game in center midfield, and I’m glad she got rewarded with a goal.”
The good news is that Winch believes Garcia will be back — and the Bulldogs have a break before she’ll be needed. “I think it might be just a bone bruise in the knee, or maybe a sprain,” Winch said. “But we have nine days before Furman, so I’m hoping she’ll be alright. She’ll be back.”
The Bulldogs (2-3-2) begin their conference schedule at Furman on Friday, Sept. 27.