From foes to champions
West Florida title teammates were rivals in junior-college days
EVANS, Ga. – Joe Bartlinski, the accomplished coach of West Florida, is no fool. He knew exactly what he had to do to win a NCAA Division II national championship this season.
“You want to win a national championship, you get Chelsea Palmer on your team,” he said.
Right on. Palmer scored the only goal in Saturday’s 1-0 West Florida victory against the California-San Diego at Blanchard Woods Park, securing the third national title of Palmer’s career.
As a junior-college player, Palmer helped win the NJCAA Division III national championship at Richland College in Texas in 2009 and the NJCAA Division I national championship at Tyler Junior College in Texas last year before transferring to West Florida.
But she did not capture her latest prized trophy on her own. There is more to the story. In fact, there is Sarah Story – the goalkeeper for the Argonauts who last year played for the Darton State team that lost to Palmer and her Tyler team in the NJCAA Division I national championship game. Current West Florida players Shelby Bush and Sashana Campbell also played for Darton in that game before transferring to West Florida prior to this season.
All of which made Saturday’s latest championship perhaps the most special for Palmer. This was the crowning moment for a team consisting of many players who did not even know each other very well even as this season-long journey began.
“It’s hard to get 25, 30 girls and be one,” Palmer said. “We’re girls, you know? Sometimes it’s not proper or easy to do that. For girls like us who didn’t really know each other to have the end result of getting here and winning this championship, that’s sensational.
“Nobody was going to quit. Nobody was going to stop. Everyone was going to pump each other up. I know I chose the right place to come and play because each one of these girls is my family.”
Palmer had the game-winning goal in last Thursday’s double-overtime semifinal victory against defending national champion Saint Rose on a penalty kick that she didn’t want to take. Bartlinski had to talk her into it.
On Saturday, her game-winner came on what she and Bartlinski called “a toe-poke’’ off a rebound of a shot by Campbell that initially was saved by UCSD goalkeeper Kelcie Brodsky.
“It’s unthinkable,” Palmer said. “You never think you’re going to get that chance right in front of the goal. And to get that opportunity, you have to finish it. I just composed myself, just like I did on the PK [in the semifinal], which I absolutely hate. There were four people in front of me, so that was the only way I could get my foot on the ball. If I had taken the time to try to get my right foot on it, it wouldn’t have went in. So like I said, whenever it’s one of those times where you have that opportunity, you have to compose yourself and do whatever it takes to knock it in.”
While she was getting it done on the offensive end in the national semifinals, Story was doing it on the defensive end. They were named Most Outstanding offensive and defensive players for the tournament, respectively, for their efforts.
Now not only teammates on the pitch but roommates off it, Story said she and Palmer have become close friends.
“Yeah, it sucked in the past to lose. But to lose to someone who now is the offensive player in this tournament and got the game-winning goal in this national championship game, I’m fine with it,” said Story, smiling. “I’m perfectly fine with that.”
Bartlinski also pointed out that Palmer played the last two weeks with a torn meniscus knee ligament, opting to play out the season before getting the necessary surgery to repair it.
“She inspires her teammates. She and [co-captain] Tori [Fish] are our vocal leaders,” Bartlinski said. “And when Chelsea had her moment, she made the most of it. That’s why we recruited her. She wins national championships.”
Asked about her penchant for piling up national championship hardware, Palmer grinned and shrugged.
“I like to win,” Palmer said simply. “It’s different every year."