The Northeast Community College women's soccer team is four wins away from a national championship.
That will be easier said than done. The 12-3-1 Hawks are seeded ninth in the 12-team National Junior College Athletic Association Division II national tournament, which is set for Friday through Wednesday in Evans, Georgia.
Evans is located near the Georgia-South Carolina border and Blanchard Woods Park, where the matches will be played, is roughly 8 miles from the famed Augusta National, home of the Masters golf tournament.
Northeast coach Chad Miller said it's been a crazy year. "Our season was moved from fall to spring, so that kind of changed everything from the get-go," he said.
"We lost some players due to COVID, not a deep bench; we only had 16 players. It's one of those things, if you told me we'd be playing in nationals come June, at the beginning of our season, I might have just laughed at it because there were so many unknowns going into this year."
Northeast qualified for the national tourney by recording home victories over fellow Iowa Community College Athletic Association members Southeastern and Hawkeye community colleges last month for the Region XI championship.
The Hawks' top-two goal scorers are sisters from Hastings: sophomore Naomi and freshman Sara Pedroza. Naomi leads the team with 15 goals and 10 assists while Sara has recorded seven and two, respectively.
"Naomi came in last year and just kind of surprised everybody with her speed and agility and goal-scoring abilities," Miller said.
"Then, bringing her sister Sara in this year, they've been playing together since they were little and so that connection is already built there. The connection that they have up top and how they see things is really exciting to see. They both work hard, they're both quick. It's just been a lot of fun."
Defensively, Hawks' goalkeeper Mackenzie Byrnes is allowing 0.81 goals per match. Miller described the Brighton, Colorado, native as amazing.
"She's earned those numbers with stopping 1 v. 1 chances and making some great saves. She just reads the game so well. But she's also got a great defense in front of her, and that back line does so much to force everybody to take longer shots away from goal."
The season didn't start out well for Northeast. The Hawks opened with a 3-0 loss to Iowa Western and a 2-1 setback at the hands of Indian Hills. But they rebounded by going 12-1-1 the rest of the way.
"After those first couple of games, some of the players started suggesting different things, and we just kind of looked at it and said, 'Yeah, let's move some people around,' and with our bench not having much depth, we just thought, ‘Let's just give it a shot,' and it's worked out for us in a positive way."
Miller said he commends his players for being willing to play positions they weren't recruited to play. "That's kind of made the difference in the whole season. If we wouldn't have made some of those moves, there's no way we'd be in the same position that we are right now."
The Hawks will have their hands full in Georgia. They've been drawn into a pool with No. 4 seed Heartland Community College of Normal, Illinois, and fifth-seeded Howard Community College of Columbia, Maryland.
The Heartland Hawks boast an unblemished record of 9-0 and have scored 62 goals while allowing just three. The Howard Dragons have recorded 10 wins and 1 loss and have scored 47 goals while allowing seven.
Conversely, Northeast is 12-3-1 with 39 goals scored and 13 allowed.
"I don't pay much attention to all the stats," Miller said. "We coach our team to play our game and focus on us and we do our best to make the other team beat us, rather than us worry about them.”
Northeast will take on Heartland on Friday and Howard on Saturday. Both matches are slated for 6:30 p.m. CT. Heartland and Howard will play one another on Sunday. The team with the best record in those three matches will advance to Tuesday's semifinals.
"I don't think I would have asked for this draw, to be playing these two teams," Miller said. "But we have to beat the best if we want to be the best, so whoever we have to play at this point is going to be tough competition for us either way."
To follow live stats of both matches, visit northeasthawks.com. Click "Sports" then under "Women's Sports" and next to "Soccer" click "Schedule." Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the icons to the right of the Heartland and Howard games.