As the final horn blared in Thursday's soccer match between Southern Miss and UTSA, various members of the Golden Eagles' team dropped from a likely combination of exhaustion and disbelief. At the same time, USM's bench ran onto the field to celebrate as the 1-1 tie in the double-overtime resulted in Southern Miss winning the program's first-ever C-USA West title.
"It is a long time coming," Senior goalkeeper Kendell Mindnich said. "These past five years that I have been here, I have come once to get the opportunity to win the conference tournament, but this is the first time ever we've been regular-season West Division champions.
"We never want anything on a silver platter with this program. That's what I love about this program is that we want the challenge, and we want the adversity. We want the battles. We don't want anything easy. This year we have done a great job of putting games away. We're champions."
However, the celebration would have never happened without Mindnich.
After giving up a goal to UTSA in the 47th minute, the Roadrunners maintained momentum minutes later and got off three straight shots on goal in a matter of seconds. Mindnich had to quickly dive to each side of the goal; while most teams would be able to take advantage of a misplaced goalkeeper, Mindnich held off the barrage.
"(I was thinking) keep the ball out of the net," Mindnich said. "Gosh, I wanted it so bad. The first goal that they scored, I was pretty upset. I thought I had a hand on it. I thought I was getting it out. The one thing about being a goalkeeper is short-term memory. Trying to keep my team-up. Trying to keep our heads up especially being captain too."
Southern Miss then flipped the field, which resulted in Ilana Izquierdo scoring USM's lone goal in the 67th minute.
"(Mindnich is) the best keeper I have ever played with," Izquierdo said. "She's so good as a player and as a person. She's the best leader we have here. She is always working so hard. When we need her, she is always there.
"She's a leader, and she is good at it."
But the program's first regular-season title almost did not happen. It was not only because Mindnich came up with the perhaps biggest play of the game, but rather because she almost never returned to the program for her extra year of eligibility.
After the NCAA soccer season was moved to this past spring, several seniors opted to transfer for their final year of eligibility. Like her fellow seniors, Mindnich had the same thought and almost transferred to Auburn for her final season.
One of the reasons for staying was assistant coach J.P. Valadares, who she credits for making her into a much better player.
"J.P. has given me so much more confidence than I thought I had in myself," said Mindnich, who is ranked third all-time in career saves. "My game had stepped up so much more. One of the reasons I came back, in general, was that I wanted to get better. I wanted to be the best I could be."
For context, Mindnich's save percentage averaged 75% in her first two seasons, but since Valadares' hiring, that number has jumped to 84%, which ranks second in C-USA.
But that success and confidence also played a role in her thought process for transferring.
"When I got in the transfer portal, they were one of the schools I was super interested in," Mindnich said. "I thought playing Power Five would be incredible and a great way to end my career and say that I made it. No one thought I could go Power Five. No one thought that I would be here even at Southern Miss too with the career that I have had here."
But another reason for staying is that Mindnich has never been one to walk away. That's partly due to her father, Paul, being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when she was just eight years old.
"Growing up, soccer was an outlet for me," Mindnich said. "He got diagnosed in 2008, and I was only eight years old. I had to be a caregiver from that first day to his last breath.
"But I learned to embrace it."
Her dad passed away in 2019, and playing for his memory has fueled her.
"I know he is looking down on me and proud of me," Mindnich said. "It was one of my reasons to push myself. I just hope that one day we can find a cure for something like this because this moment and five years of playing college soccer is something I want to remember forever."
That adversity helped develop her mindset coming into her freshman year at Southern Miss back in 2017. That season she started just two games, and by her own account she was not ready for college soccer.
"I tell people all the time, and I tell the freshmen to come in with the attitude that you are going to play," Mindnich said. "That's the only regret I have playing here at Southern Miss. I didn't come in prepared. I didn't work hard enough over the summer. I didn't have enough confidence in myself.
"I care so much for the younger people here. I really wanted to make sure that this program was going to maintain that the culture that we have built here in the last five years."
However, that season taught her a valuable lesson of building the confidence of her underclassmen.
"Kendell is a diamond," Southern Miss head coach Mohammed El-Zare said. "She had an enormous amount of pressure in her lifetime. In her childhood, at caring for her father, who was battling Alzheimer's. Coming in here and being challenged in her first year on the field on the field and all that. She's overcome a lot of challenges in her life, and those experiences have made her who she is today and very coachable."
In fact, her leadership carries so much weight that heading into the second overtime, El-Zare didn't have to say a word to his team; instead, Mindnich did all of the talking.
"She's a special one," El-Zare said." She is one of those players that have not only made an impact on the field but made an impact on me. Today I'm a better father, a better husband, and a better coach because of her."
Southern Miss will now head into the C-USA tournament as a No. 1 seed. The Golden Eagles will play the winner of Florida Atlantic and Charlotte on Wednesday.
Slideshow photos by Andrew Abadie.