While the other three NWAACC division champs saw opponents with at least one loss on their conference records, top-ranked Peninsula got a heavy hitter in its quarterfinal matchup this weekend. The visiting Whatcom Orcas came in with nine wins, seven draws and zero losses, their most recent defeat coming in August.
On Saturday, Peninsula made sure Whatcom remembered the sting of a loss.
Alexandria Rojas-Ayala came off the bench to strike a game-winning goal from 30 yards out with just four minutes remaining in regulation, sending Peninsula back to the Final Four to defend their NWAACC title.
"I thought today was a great prep game for us," Peninsula coach Kanyon Anderson said. "If you can come out of it (with a win), you're stronger. We couldn't have scripted it any better."
Peninsula earned a 1-0 lead in the first half on a Miranda Sochacki score and Shelbi Vienna-Hallam assist at the 13-minute mark. Whatcom, a team with a knack for playing even with its foes, drew even thanks to a Bailey Butcher assist about two minutes before halftime.
Peninsula peppered the Whatcom goal for much of the second half, but to no avail. A shot by Bronte Fitzsimmons at 59 minutes sailed just wide and Bri Afoa's chip shot at 82 minutes struck the left post and bounced away.
"There was a sense of, 'When are we going to get it?'" Anderson said. "We missed a couple of easy chances … (but) I felt like we had a better second half than they did."
After 85 minutes of play, with Whatcom players encouraging each other to hang on for a few more minutes, Fitzsimmons fought for possession deep in Whatcom territory, then slipped a pass to Rojas-Ayala, who launched a shot that arced past Whatcom keeper Megan O'Keefe's outstretched arms and into the upper right corner.
"I saw the ball go out wide (and kicked it) — I didn't think it as going in," Rojas-Ayala said.
Peninsula players erupted in surprised joy. Four minutes later, following the game's final whistle, they did again.
Now the Pirates can look earning a spot in a third consecutive NWAACC title game.
"I just hope we keep playing the same way," Rojas-Ayala said.
The Warriors once more
In 2011, playing in their first NWAACC title game, Peninsula fought and fell to the Walla Walla Warriors, 1-0.
Two different Pirate and Warrior rosters square off in one of two 2013 NWAACC semifinals on Nov. 16 at the Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila; game time is 1 p.m.
Ranked No. 14 in the nation, the Pirates (18-2-0) have plenty of experience on their side, with 11 players on the roster from last year's championship team. Afoa, last season's NWAACC Player of the Year, is in the hunt for the NWAACC scoring title with 23 goals while Fitzsimmons leads the NWAACC with 22 assists and has 10 goals to boot.
Walla Walla (19-1-1) was knocked out of last year's playoffs in the quarterfinals but return a tough team that leads the NWAACC in scoring (99) and fewest goals allowed (six). Peninsula is second in both categories with 85 goals scored and 12 allowed.
Delaney Romero leads the Warriors with 23 goals, tied for tops in the conference, while Aiko Johnson leads the NWAACC with 13 shutouts.
Clackamas (13-4-2) takes on Edmonds (15-2-3) in the other semifinal, set for 10:30 a.m. on Nov 16.
The championship game slated for 3 p.m. on Nov. 17.
Anderson said he likes his team's chances against at the Final Four.
"I don't think we're going to be easy to beat," he said.