By Andrew Sevcik

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (July 9, 2018) - Nationals defender Eva Papista scored a sensational goal in second-half stoppage time to send the Pontiac, Mich. club to the inaugural Girls' U-16/17 Academy Championships Final. Papista's hit served as the breakthrough in an intense game that seemed destined for extra time as Nationals defeated the San Jose Earthquakes 1-0.

A back-and-forth affair for 90-plus minutes, neither team seemed able to find the back of the net. Deadlocked in a scoreless draw as second-half stoppage time began, Nationals sent numbers forward for a late attack. Papista found the ball on the right wing and tried to play in forward Emily Matthews. San Jose midfielder Juliette Torres tracked the run all the way across the field, but Papista pounced on her clearance attempt. Usually a defender, Papista entered the match late in the second half to provide extra service into the box. She took a touch to two yards from the right touchline and unleashed such a service.

"These girls worked so hard the entire game that it hurt," Papista said. "I knew I needed to come in and make an impact. I'm usually looking to cross because I'm not the shooter, but it turned into a good goal."

Papista's cross sailed a perfect trajectory to loop over Quakes goalkeeper Nicole Shulman in the and into the side netting to give Nationals the game's lone goal. It proved to be all they needed to secure their place in the final.

Playing under the raised stakes of the final four, both teams grew into the game cautiously from the opening whistle. The approach saved the game's real drama for the end.

Nationals found the evening's first real attacking threat in the 39th minute when midfielder Arianna Jalics intercepted a pass from Shulman on the left wing. She drove towards goal and sizzled the ball back near the penalty spot, where Allison Leonard rushed on to it. Her first-time attempt rattled the crossbar, but it fell and was cleared by the Quakes.

Four minutes later, San Jose and U.S. Under-17 Women's National Team midfielder Sophie Jones catalyzed a chance for the Quakes. Jones controlled a loose ball with her head, beat one defender and then juked around another. As she drove down the field on a 50-yard run, two teammates flanked her. She opted to dump a through ball to Abigail Borchers, but Nationals 'keeper Emma Boutorwick was quick off her line to cut down the angle and force a premature short from Borchers that went wide.

In the 45th, Jones again tried to slide a ball through the defense into the path of the San Jose forwards' runs. As Camille Lafaix strove for the ball, Nationals center back Caitlin O'Malley alertly recovered to tackle it away just before the Quakes striker could get a touch. Nationals closed out the flurry of action at the end of the first half when Jalics found space for a shot only to for Shulman to make a comfortable save.

The game's rhythm continued in the second half, as chances proved hard to come by. Lafaix found just enough room to fire off two second-half shots, but both were handled by Boutorwick. Jalics tested the San Jose goal in 80th minute, but Shulman was equal to the task, diving quickly to her right to avert the danger.

Following Papista's stunner, San Jose kicked its offense into another gear and created two chances for an even later equalizer.

After Papista's stoppage time stunner, the San Jose attack kicked into high gear. The Quakes mustered two threatening chances as they desperately searched for an even-later equalizer. Mia Fontana curled a shot just wide and Kayleen Gowers took San Jose's final attempt, hitting a 30-yard shot off the top of the crossbar and over the netting.

Nationals advances to Wednesday's Academy Championships Final, where the Mid-America Division champs will take on Real Colorado. San Jose will meet LAFC Slammers in the Third-Place match.