KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Tomorrow at noon, the Sabercats Women's Soccer Team takes on the stage they have coveted for the last three years: the NCCAA DII National Tournament and the chance to call themselves national champions.
In one sense, the Sabercats are ordinary. After all, every team wants to win a title. Every team wants to go to Nationals. Every team wants the chance to make new memories and etch their name in the record books for years to come. But when you have had heartbreak in each of your last three postseasons, your chance at the national title hits differently.
For seniors Sarah Bagin, McKenna Massey, and Alexis Sponable, the 2020 National Tournament isn't just a chance to win a title - it's a chance to rewrite some of the most painful memories they've lived out as athletes.
In each of the last three years, these three have had their Nationals hopes end in sheer heartbreak at the hands of Providence University College at NCCAA Regionals. In 2017, Maranatha was winning the championship game 1-0 with a minute left before allowing a dramatic equalizer. Then in the ensuing sudden-death overtime, they had their regional hopes crushed.
The very next year in the very same game, the same exact situation transpired with agonizing familiarity. On their home field, the Sabercats were winning in the championship game 2-1 before conceding in the final minute of regulation and then again in sudden-death overtime. The year after that, the emotions were simultaneously raw and weathered when Providence won the regional semifinal 1-0, once again in sudden death.
Three years. Three different scorelines. Three overtime losses. Three straight heartbreaks.
The Sabercats know what the regional banner felt like because in each of the last three years, they had one hand on it before it was snatched away as if in a recurring nightmare.
But now, they clutch the regional banner tightly with a conviction that can only come through knowing the pain of letting it go. Now, they're at Nationals. To get there, these three seniors didn't have the chance to get their revenge on Providence directly, but they don't really care about that at this point. After a gritty 1-0 win over Faith Baptist in the North Region Championship, the Sabercats had finally conquered their regional fears and had paved a way to the national finale for the first time since 2016. For these seniors, being in Florida at this time of year is the first of two major goals they are eagerly looking to accomplish.
"Getting over the same exact situation for the last three years in a row and knowing we don't have to face that any more," said Massey. "[Then] coming to Nationals is a completely different mindset for me. We can still play. We're still here. We might as well do whatever we can to finish strong."
Massey knows a thing or two about changing her mindset. The senior was sidelined with a major injury in 2018 and had a surgery on her road to get here. Capping it all off with winning a national title? That would be something special.
In order to do that, the Sabercats know the gameplan to make the dream become a reality. They've learned the hard way. They've learned how to win. Through three years of pushing, they have developed muscle. And they are eager to put the strength into motion - not only to show well, but also to win the national crown.
"In the past three years we've lost the exact same way," Bagin said. "And so going into [Nationals], we have a lot more drive. We need to work together and we need to have drive - if we win, we will have done what we've been setting out to do for four years now."
"I think we just have to play like we've been training the last couple of weeks," Sponable said. "And that's playing fast-paced, running hard, and running for each other. And ultimately we just need to put the ball in the back of the net."
The seniors know what's behind them. They know what their job is now, and they know what lies ahead. In their minds, it's time to rewrite the heartbreaking script of the past three years and finish their four years of playing in the way every college athlete dreams of - with the championship banner draped around their shoulders.
"It's obviously been really hard the last three years," Sponable said. "But the mindset is that we're not going to let anything stop us now. We're determined to win it all."