In Erica Hart’s first start as a Vandal, she scored twice to help Idaho defeat Eastern Washington. Four years and 54 starts later, Hart — one of 10 Idaho seniors — scored a brace to lead the Vandals past New Mexico State 3-1 in her last match on Guy Wicks Field.
More important than a senior day victory, though, is a berth in the WAC Tournament, which the Vandals clinched on a dramatic final day of conference play. The tournament takes place Nov. 1-4 and will showcase the WAC’s top six teams in Logan, Utah.
Idaho will open the tournament as the sixth seed and will play a rematch against No. 3 Texas State, who defeated the Vandals 2-1 Sept. 28.
Idaho (6-13-1, 3-4-1 WAC) opened on the attack against last-place New Mexico State (2-14-3, 0-7-1 WAC), culminating in a 6th minute goal courtesy of junior defender Nitalia Zuniga, who tapped in a Chelsie Breen header off a Katie Baran corner kick — all three underclassmen.
“We had some good practices this week, and we just had it in our heads that we had to come out strong,” Zuniga said. “We didn’t want this to be our last game with the seniors, so we just put everything we had out there.”
Idaho’s defense stood stout for the remainder of the first half, allowing the Aggies only four shots, one of which was on goal. The Vandals on the other hand, mustered nine shots and four on goal in the opening 45 minutes.
Idaho coach Pete Showler said Idaho imposed its style on the Aggies, which led to the Vandals dominating New Mexico State in all statistical categories — the scoreboard included.
“They took the game to them early, up two-nil at halftime, and we know that’s the most dangerous lead to have, but that third one kind of gave us that extra cushion,” Showler said. “They got that one, but then we came back and put the pressure right back on them. It was fantastic and I’m so proud.”
Both sides exchanged possession for the majority of the first half before a trio of seniors gave the home side the two-score advantage.
In the 40th minute, midfielder Megan Lopez took a through ball up the right wing, and after some cheeky dribbling around a couple Aggie defenders, she found midfielder Jill Flockhart, who struck a perfect cross into the box and onto the head of Hart, who finished for her third goal of the season.
“It was perfect. Megan’s got foot moves for days, and Jill always plays a perfect ball,” Hart said. “I had the easy part in it. It was awesome though.”
Hart tacked on the Vandals’ third score in the 60th minute after finishing a rebound in the box. Hart said she couldn’t have asked for a better way to end her Idaho home career than getting a win while playing with her teammates.
“It’s easy to play with my best friends. It’s something you don’t have to work at,” Hart said. “They’re always there for me and that’s more than I can ask for.”
Showler said that he was emotional throughout the day, from walking on the pitch for warm-ups to getting a Gatorade bath after the ceremonies, and even though the team will be losing 10 seniors, they’ll be gaining a lot of new leaders.
“The foundations are being set and the standards are being set with this senior group, and everybody coming through beyond then has known what the standards are and they’ve picked up and will continue to pick up to strive and achieve what this group has,” Showler said.
The Vandals will play at noon Thursday in their WAC Tournament quarterfinal match against the Bobcats, and Showler said they’ll be looking for some revenge.
Madison McCord can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org