Though Liliana Ruiz had some trouble remembering the precise mechanics of her game-winning penalty kick Saturday, at least the Vanguard University sophomore didn't forget to breathe in the first round of the NAIA women's soccer championship against visiting Columbia College.
Ruiz, who said she has a hard time with relaxation in pressure situations, calmed herself enough to bury her penalty kick, the sixth attempt of the post-match shootout for the Lions, to propel the hosts to the second round of the tournament that runs Dec. 2-7 in Orange Beach, Ala.
The No. 6-seeded Lions (15-4-1) will face Robert Morris of Illinois (14-4-1) in the second round on Dec. 2. Robert Morris knocked off Spring Harbor of Michigan, which eliminated Vanguard in the quarterfinals of last year's NAIA tournament in penalty kicks.
Ruiz capped off a 4-3 PK advantage for Vanguard, which scored in the 20th minute of regulation, but surrendered the equalizer in the 71st minute. The two teams did not score in two 10-minute sudden-death overtime periods, forcing the PK shootout, which begins with five penalty kicks each. After the first five, the two teams were deadlocked, 3-3, prompting subsequent rounds until a winner was decided.
Vanguard went first throughout the shootout. After Ruiz converted, Columbia senior Perla Hernandez booted her attempt high over the crossbar to end the contest, which goes down as a tie.
"I taught Lili that shot [Friday]," Vanguard Coach Randy Dodge said. "I didn't like her PKs. I think she's composed enough to be able to hit them, so I had to teach her a way that I thought would be successful for her. In fact, when she was hitting it, I was hoping she didn't step back too far [from the ball], because it's a really tight PK. It's just one step back and it looked like she took two. But she hit it well. The keeper didn't even move. [The keeper] didn't have a chance."
Jen Martin and Asia Kleinmeyer converted the Lions' first two PKs, but Columbia (16-2-2), the highest-scoring team in the nation (106 goals), matched them.
After Columbia keeper Erica Ramirez stopped Megan Hill's attempt, Vanguard junior Lauren Terry, an All-American goalkeeper as a sophomore, dived to her right to bat a low attempt outside the post for a save.
Ramirez posted another save on two-time Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jordan Davidson, an All-American forward as a junior. But Columbia's subsequent attempt caromed off the right goal post for a miss.
All-GSAC sophomore defender Ashley McCutcheon, whose four goals this season have all been headers, showed she is also proficient with her right foot, by booming a drive into the upper right corner of the net to put the pressure on the fifth Columbia shooter.
But the Cougars converted to extend the shootout, allowing Ruiz to test her mettle.
"Once [the Cougars knotted it at 3-3] I panicked," Ruiz said. "But then I thought, just go with what you do and I went to it. When it comes to relaxation, sometimes I have a hard time. I have to just breathe and sometimes talk to myself. Breathing in and out is something that will help me. It calms me."
Senior All-GSAC forward Kayla Arenas calmed the home crowd by finishing a nimble combination that began with Ruiz and continued to Martin, who set up Arenas for her team-leading 15th goal of the season.
But Columbia, in its first NAIA tournament appearance in the program's second year of existence, answered with a similarly well-designed goal by Stephanie Hale, who finished the season with 23 goals and 24 assists.
Vanguard had a 6-5 edge in shots at halftime, but finished with a 21-8 cushion.
Terry had four saves and Ramirez made six, while Ruiz produced five shots, one more than Martin and Arenas.
"We went out in PKs last year, so for this group to win in PKs is huge," Dodge said. "We had kids step up and bang some big-time penalty kicks. It's exciting to be going to Alabama again this year."