Northwestern State’s historic season comes to an end in conference tournament championship

CONWAY, Ark.—Esther Okoronkwo’s strong play was too much for the Northwestern State soccer team to overcome, as the Lady Demons fell 3-1 in the Southland Conference Tournament Championship at the Bill Stephens Track and Soccer Complex on Sunday.

Okoronkwo scored two goals and had an assist, while Conference Player of the Year Lucy Ashworth had a goal for the Cardinals.

The season ends for NSU at 13-8-1, but it was a historic season for the Lady Demons. NSU finished with the second-most wins and second-most conference points in school history. NSU was picked eighth in the preseason polls but finished with its best finish since 2005 (2nd).

“There were some chances both ways, and we were getting the ball into some good spaces, but just weren’t converting,” co-head coach Jess Jobe said. “We were limiting Lamar early on, as both teams were kind of feeling each other out.

“We felt pretty positive about how things started, but we made a few mistakes on the goals. Overall, our team fought really hard. We gave it everything we could and I’m proud of our players for their effort.”

Nicole Henry scored the lone goal for NSU, firing a shot top right shelf after a pass from Alexis Weaver. It is the sophomore’s first career goal.

Allowing three goals, the Lady Demons finished 0-5 in games in which they allowed at least two goals.

For Lamar (16-6), the Cardinals earned their second NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons.

It took 31 minutes for either team to get off a shot, but when Lamar did, the Cardinals cashed in. Okoronkwo raced down the left side and sent it into the box, and Ashworth slid it in to send in to the back of the net to give Lamar the first lead.

It was the only scoring of the first half.

NSU had the first shot of the second half on a header by Olivia Draguicevich, but it was saved by Lamar goalkeeper Erin Branch in the 48th minute.

Shortly thereafter, in the 51st minute, Okoronkwo had an incredible individual effort to put Lamar in front 2-0. She weaved through and sent it in low left for the goal from the box.

Okoronkowo scored her second on the day minutes later on a header from the middle of the box to make it 3-0. It was the largest deficit for NSU since trailing 4-0 late against Baylor in the second game of the season.

Henry, the Southland Conference Defender of the Year, jump started the offense for NSU with a shot that was stopped by Branch before Henry shot one into the top right corner for the first goal of the game for NSU.

NSU had chances to cut further into the deficit, but couldn’t get the second goal into the back of the net.

In the 81st minute, freshman Kaitlyn Poirrier had a chance, but her shot went just wide left. Minutes later, Weaver’s header went high. The last chance came in the 88th minute when sophomore Jalen Donaldson’s shot from outside the box on the top left-hand side sailed high.

It was the final contest for three Northwestern State seniors: Kayla Bomben, Jayden Wheeler and Courtney LeJeune. Wheeler finished with a career-high three goals and was a major offensive threat down the stretch, scoring three goals in the final six games.

Bomben saved her best for last, having a goals against average of 0.99 and recorded two shutouts. LeJeune could not play in either of the past two seasons but has been a major leader from the sidelines.

“Obviously everyone is disappointed and emotional right now, but it is important to know what an impact they have had on this program,” Jobe said. “They have had helped us with the coaching transition and getting on board with the philosophy and the cultural changes we’ve tried to instill.”

NSU won the shot battle 10-7, but Lamar had six shots on goal, compared to NSU’s four. Henry led NSU in shots with three.