ESTERO — Sunday afternoon's Atlantic Sun women's soccer championship game was Florida Gulf Coast University's first shot at an automatic Division I NCAA tournament bid in any sport.
The Eagles finally nailed it.
After spending four hours in a Naples hospital with a 104-degree fever Saturday night, FGCU freshman Shannen Wacker took a backward head-bumper from senior Gina Petracco, tapped the ball once on the breakaway, then beat Mercer goalkeeper Nikki Atkinson to the right side of the net with 3:50 left in double-overtime to give FGCU a 1-0 home win in front of 1,026 fans.
The Eagles exploded into each other and the mob of students on hand before collecting their A-Sun championship T-shirts and trophies, and posing for a slew of photos. Monday afternoon, they find out who and when they'll play when the 64-team College Cup field is announced via NCAA.com beginning at 4:30. FGCU, whose RPI mostly has hovered in the 70s, likely will have to travel for the first-rounder that will be played Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
The A-Sun regular-season champion Eagles, who snatched their first conference tourney title in their first attempt after four seasons of transition into D-I, had to knock off a Mercer team that had won two of the last five tourney titles, including last season's. It was a grueling, physical match that often saw FGCU's field littered with ugly clumps of green (FGCU) and orange (Mercer). There were four yellow cards and stern warnings to the FGCU student section and Mercer bench.
FGCU (14-4-2) out-shot Mercer 15-10, but really, the scoring opportunities were few and very far between. Eagles senior all-conference goalkeeper Stephanie Powers had four saves, while Atkinson had six for Mercer (10-8-2).
By the end of regulation, players on both sides were panting, often with hands on hips or knees.
"We were exhausted," Petracco said. "But it's all about heart and determination."
None had more than Wacker, the tournament MVP who had the first goal in FGCU's 2-1 semifinal win against North Florida on Friday, and a 99- or 100-degree fever at the kickoff Sunday.
"I'm ready to pass out," Wacker said. "I was exhausted but I did what I could."
"Both defenses were so good and so fast at clogging everything up," FGCU coach Jim Blankenship said. "The teams couldn't get into a rhythm because the defensive pressure was so fast and so good."
Petracco, who had a goal and assist Friday night, took a long pass from junior Brittany Burt before heading the ball to Wacker for the goal.
"Gina, to her credit, has been busting it all weekend with Shannen,"Blankenship said. "They really work well together. It was a nice ball in and Gina just got up and won her header and the ball came out right to Shannen and she just rocked it. Kind of fitting that it was those two. That was what we were hoping would happen."
Petracco saw Wacker, and it, coming.
"I saw the ball in the air and I knew Shannen was behind me, so I needed to get it back quick for her to get the ball," said Petracco, who joined teammates KC Correllus and Powers on the all-tournament team. "It turned out perfect. It was unbelievable. Perfect goal. Perfect timing."
A red-faced Wacker managed a grin.
"(Petracco) went up for it, did a lot of hard work, and I saw the ball and tried to finish that," Wacker said. "Me and her, since I started playing forward at the start of the season, we've just had a lot of chemistry and connection together. So I just got by her side, and I was there."
When Blankenship started this program five years ago, FGCU didn't even have a field. But he insisted he always believed the Eagles could reach this goal in their first year of postseason eligibility.
"We talked about that last week," Blankenship said. "I said, 'We've been dreaming about this for five years.' This is why I came here and why we started this program.
"We want to be great at what we do."