EVANS, Ga. – With Thursday’s night’s Division II women’s soccer semifinal -- and a trip to Saturday’s national championship game -- on the line, West Florida Argonauts coach Joe Bartlinski went looking for his star player.

And this time, Chelsea Palmer could not find a place to hide.

The reluctant heroine was tabbed by Bartlinski to take a penalty kick early in the second overtime against defending national champ Saint Rose, and she gave the Argonauts a 2-1 victory when she beat goalkeeper Jessica Gerski for the game-winner in the 101st minute of play. West Florida will now face the UC San Diego, a 2-1 winner against Grand Valley State in the other semifinal, in Saturday’s championship game.

“She doesn’t want to take penalty kicks ever, but I forced her to go up,” a smiling Bartlinski said afterward. “We had a couple of other opportunities earlier in the year where we decided to use other people. But as soon as this foul occurred, I pointed right at her. She tried to hide … but Chelsea stepped up, composed herself and – just like at every practice – just buried it. She was our ace in the hole when it came to taking the PK.”

Palmer, a junior, admitted that she usually isn’t too keen on putting herself in the spotlight when it comes to taking penalty kicks. In fact, she let Bartlinski in on a little secret about how she normally attempts to handle it.

“I usually close my eyes,” she said. “But I kept them open this time.”

“Ooohhh. I didn’t need to hear that,” said Bartlinski, laughing.

Palmer said she knew she had to step up on this occasion and accept the challenge without much hesitation.

“As soon as [teammate Daniela Cruz] got fouled, Coach Bart said he wanted me for the PK. So I kind of got my head together,” said Palmer, now tied for the team lead in goals this season with fellow junior Shelby Bush, both with 16. “I knew I had to do it – not only for myself, but for my team and our fans and everyone at the school who is looking for us to finish this.

“You’ve got to kind of clear your mind – because if you don’t, so much goes through your mind that you overthink it. If I did that, I knew I wouldn’t know where it was going to go. Instead, I cleared my head and it was just me and the goalkeeper. And it went in.” 

Meanwhile, Coach Laurie Darling Gutheil of Saint Rose, the defending DII national champion, did not think the penalty kick should have been awarded in the first place. Officials awarded it after ruling that Saint Rose’s Glenda Smith had knocked Cruz to the ground inside the goal box.

“What happened was you had a kid dribbling away from the goal and it was a foul that was all-ball, and the official saw it differently,” the Saint Rose coach said. “So that’s as much as I’m allowed to say [about that] at this [news] conference.

“I think you saw a superbly played soccer game [Thursday] night. I think both of these teams played their hearts out. And I think that the play on the field should have been determined with the outcome by the players and not by a call of that magnitude when it did not present itself that way.”

Darling Gutheil attempted to stop herself from further criticism of the officials with mixed results, instead attempting to direct focus on the fine season her team had. The Golden Knights finished the season with a 20-3-2 record.

“It was very difficult because certain fouls that were very ticky-tacky were called, and then other kids were getting mauled and it was allowed to be played on,” she said. “So it was just very inconsistent.

“What I’d like to talk about is my team. We graduated seven unbelievable seniors last year. We had a tremendous returning core of talented upperclassmen. We put together a superb recruiting class – and what these girls have done, as young as we are, is absolutely incredible.”

Thursday’s game was a physical affair from the start, with the officials appearing to let the players play. Both teams were aggressive, but it wasn’t until the 78th minute when senior Monica Malavassi scored on an assist from Palmer that a scoreless stalemate was broken.

The 1-0 lead for West Florida lasted less than 10 minutes. Capping a relentless rally by digging the ball out in a crowd in front of the goal, Michaela Phillips tied the game for Saint Rose on an assist from La’Quilla Upton in the 87th minute, setting up the first overtime.

That 10-minute session came and went without anything being settled. But early in the second overtime, Palmer put an end to the evening by burying the penalty kick – much to the delight of her coach.

Bartlinski credited not only Palmer but team captain Tori Firsh for putting West Florida, now 23-1 on the season, into Saturday’s final.

“That was exciting. Both teams are made up of competitors, and Saint Rose, I want to give full credit to them,” Bartlinski said. “For us to go up like we did and then for them to go down and tie it up, that was amazing. It was a great battle. You have players and coaches who are fierce competitors, and we knew they weren’t going to give up.

“When they scored, I saw Tori on the field, just pumping everyone up. That was pretty impressive – because that would have been an easy time to get down. But she stepped up. It’s amazing the leadership we have – and that’s why we’re playing on Saturday.”