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In retrospect, members of the Navy women’s soccer team never panicked when they found themselves staring at a 1-0 deficit at halftime of Sunday’s Patriot League tournament final against Army West Point.

Senior goalkeeper Sydney Fortson noted that the Midshipmen had dominated possession and figured it was only a matter of time before the offense broke through. Senior center back Alex Jackson said she had too much faith in her teammates.

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And senior defensive midfielder Cadie Higginson was reminded of the program’s two-goal comeback in the second half for a 2-1 win over the Black Knights on Oct. 12, 2018.

“We’ve been in that position before,” she said. “So just having that experience of knowing that we had it in us to come back and get some goals and win that game, I don’t think anybody ever had a doubt that we were going to lose to Army. We just made it a little more exciting for the fans.”

More excitement is on the horizon after Sunday’s 2-1 victory at the Glenn Warner Soccer Facility sent Navy to its fourth NCAA Division I tournament and first since 2007. The Midshipmen (16-2-3) will visit North Carolina State (10-6-4) on Friday at 7 p.m. at Dail Soccer Field in Raleigh.

Coach Carin Gabarra said she fully anticipated an NCAA postseason for this group, especially the seven-member senior class.

“The biggest thing is, they have this grit about them,” she said. “They train hard, and they bring it every single day. They have the ability to keep that specific mentality of getting the job done, and sometimes that’s the difference.”

This year’s road to the NCAA postseason might be considered overdue. The 2017 squad went 16-4-1 overall and 8-0-1 in the Patriot League en route to the conference’s regular-season championship and top seed in the league tournament. But Bucknell pulled off a 3-2 upset in the title game.

Last season, Navy compiled an 11-6-3 overall record and a 7-2 mark in the league to earn the No. 3 seed. But that team was upended by Army, 1-0, in double overtime in the tournament quarterfinal round.

So this year’s berth in the NCAA tournament is especially sweet for the seniors and juniors who absorbed those setbacks in 2017 and 2018.

“You can never really fix how you feel losing in the quarterfinals or the finals like we did the past two years,” Fortson said. “I think that left a bitter taste in our mouths. But I think we used that to motivate us this time around. So it does make up for it in the fact that we’re really happy.”

Navy senior goalie Sydney Fortson (Courtesy of Navy Athletics)
Navy senior goalie Sydney Fortson (Courtesy of Navy Athletics)

The team’s only two losses this fall were to LSU and Holy Cross — the latter of which resonated with the players.

“I think after we lost to Holy Cross, something really clicked with the team,” said sophomore midfielder Carolyn Mang, a Forest Hill resident and C. Milton Wright graduate who leads the Midshipmen in goals (five) and ranks second in points (10) behind senior midfielder Baseley McClaskey (14). “We had a couple of really good games after that, and we came out with this new energy and desire to finish out the league strong. I think the loss at Holy Cross did something, and we wanted to get back after it.”

The strength of the Midshipmen has been a suffocating defense. The unit has surrendered only 0.4 goals per game, which ranks as the seventh-stingiest rate in the country and is the program’s lowest average since the 2006 team also gave up 0.4 goals.

The defense has shut out 13 opponents, allowed only four of the nine goals scored against it to be assisted, and has limited offenses to 6.8 shots and 2.7 corner kicks per game.

Navy senior center back Alex Jackson (Courtesy of Navy Athletics)
Navy senior center back Alex Jackson (Courtesy of Navy Athletics) (Phil Hoffmann)

Jackson and Fortson are the senior fixtures on defense, which starts sophomore Avery Fries at center back, junior Denisse Ramirez at right back, freshman Kaitlynn Johns at left back and rotates in freshman Sadie McCaleb. Jackson said she and Fortson anchor their teammates and each other.

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“At some point, we’ll have two freshmen in the back, and they’re incredible players, but it’s very hard to go from a club and high school setting straight into a D-I game,” she said. “I think the fact that we have this knowledge and composure helps the younger players a lot, but it also helps a lot because Syd will calm me down and I’ll calm her down, and then it just goes forward throughout the entire team.”

Jackson and Higginson said the defense has leaned on Fortson to wipe away errors, but she said the interaction is a two-way street.

“I think it’s really just a relationship built on trust,” said Fortson, who ranks 13th in the nation in goals-against average (.475). “If I’m having a bad game, then they have to have a good game, and if they’re having a bad game, I have to have a good game. It’s one of those things where it’s a little give and take. Knowing that they’re playing in front of me does give me more confidence, and when I have that confidence, they feel a little bit better, too.”

The backs have also pounced on offensive chances. Higginson has six points on two goals and two assists, Jackson has five points on two goals and one assist, and Fries has four points on one goal and two assists.

Navy senior defensive midfielder Cadie Higginson (Courtesy of Navy Athletics)
Navy senior defensive midfielder Cadie Higginson (Courtesy of Navy Athletics) (Phil Hoffmann)

“Our defenders need to play soccer,” Gabarra reasoned. “It’s not just about the defending piece. They have to be composed and technical on the ball and be able to keep the ball under pressure. This group has just done well at that. They’re just cohesive. They are all able to communicate. We’ve changed formations and put different people in the back, and they’ve all gelled and had a good season defensively.”

Despite going 6-0-1 in its past seven games, Navy is considered the underdog to a Wolfpack team that has won all five meetings in their all-time series. Higginson said the underdog label doesn’t irk her.

“If that lights a fire under anybody’s belly, then sure,” she said. “But I think realistically, we’re just going in there happy that we get a chance in the NCAA tournament, happy that we get to play a good team, happy that we get to show off what we’ve learned all season and represent the Patriot League well.”

Looking to stay afloat

Making its fourth appearance in the NCAA Division I tournament, the Navy women’s soccer program is 0-3-1 in four postseason games and has advanced to the second round only once in 2006. Here is how the academy has fared in previous years.

Year; Opponent; Round; Result

2003; At No. 5 Penn State; First; L, 5-1

2006; Vs. William & Mary; First; T, 0-0 (Advanced 5-4 on PKs)

2006; At No. 1 North Carolina; Second; L, 4-0

2007; At No. 12 West Virginia; First; L, 4-0

NCAA first round

Raleigh, N.C.

Navy@North Carolina State

Friday, 7 p.m.

Streaming: ACC Network Extra

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