Rain clouds overhead started their work, so as players — exhausted from a 110-minute Pac-12 Conference opening battle — left Ute Soccer Field on Saturday afternoon to avoid droplets, they were met with cheers and congratulations.
Carly Nelson couldn’t get farther than 10 yards. She had a lot of chatting to do. Every few feet, when a conversation ended, Utah’s sophomore goalkeeper saw another friend or fan approach her with a high-five or a hug. As Nelson slowly got closer to filing off the field, a fan screamed in admiration, saying that Nelson was her hero.
On Saturday, against the reigning NCAA champs, she was undoubtedly Utah’s hero.
The shot-stopper from Lindon made a career-high 10 saves, including an 88th-minute penalty kick stop to ensure the No. 25 Utes and No. 10 USC Trojans would leave, fittingly, in a 0-0 double-overtime draw.
“They’re reigning champions,” Nelson said afterward, “so [we] put in a fight and got a tie, at least. It’s more than a loss.”
Thanks to her stellar afternoon.
USC junior forward Leah Pruitt was awarded a penalty in the 87th minute after colliding with two Utah defenders. Nelson had already eclipsed her previous season high of saves (seven last week in a win against Kansas). She’d be summoned to make one more, the biggest of the year to date. So as USC freshman Savannah DeMelo approached the ball and rifled a shot to her left, Nelson was there to meet it.
“It’s a goalkeeper’s dream sometimes when these are the biggest moments you get in a game, these are your moments to step up and show what you’re made of,” Nelson said. “I said, ‘I got this ball, I’ve got this, I’ve been training, I’ve worked for it, I’m going to do it.’”
Utah coach Rich Manning said the late penalty call against the Utes was frustrating, but his mind immediately went to what follows. If the Trojans went up, he said, Utah had two minutes to find an answer.
“You always hope you’ll save it,” he said.
Nelson’s standout day will be remembered for the penalty save, but she made a series of various stops throughout the match that kept the Utes in it.
USC hit a few shots directly at Nelson, but she even managed to bail out defenders who made sloppy passes out of the back that allowed the Trojans clean looks on net. Nelson made a full-extension save in the 56th minute, snagging a deflected shot that was curling into the far post.
Utah’s best look of the day came late, but instead of a walk-off win, junior forward Hailey Skolmoski saw her powerful close-range header in the 105th minute driven right into the arms of USC keeper Kaylie Collins.
“I thought we battled really hard and we competed, especially as the game wore on,” Manning said. “It was kind of a test of your competitive spirit and will. I thought we did well in that area. We love playing them. They’re really good.”
Nelson was better Saturday.
Asked if her 10-save outing was the best he’d ever seen her play between the posts, Manning said, “Yeah … last Friday was her best game — until today.”