FEATURE: An Unforgettable World Cup Experience

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By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State junior forwards Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram had the rare opportunity to compete with the U.S. National Team at the U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan where they entered as one team with one purpose and emerged as champions.

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"It's kind of hard to grasp still, almost two weeks later, that we won the World Cup," said Hayes.  "It's just amazing to overcome everything.  We learned a lesson in every single game and I think that was the difference maker."

When it came time for the National Team to make its selections, Hayes was practically a lock.  She had played with the team before and had arguably the best season of soccer for a sophomore in Penn State history. Schram, on the other hand, was a different story.

After a concussion removed her from the sport she loved for seven months, the Canonsburg, Pa, native had the opportunity to practice with the team in late July, the last month of camp.  When Schram was informed that she had been chosen to join the National Team she couldn't believe it.  Her first thought was to tell her mother the good news.

"The first thing that came to my mind was 'I need to call my mom,'" said Schram, recalling the moment.  "I called my mom and we both cried on the phone because I couldn't believe it.  It's been a dream since I was five years old and I couldn't believe it had actually come true.  It's amazing."

Representing their country on the international stage would be a humbling experience, but Hayes and Schram learned their part well from a culture that preached Success with Honor and respect for those who played before them.

"We always say to be humble when you put the crest on and to know that every time you put that crest on you're representing those that came before you and everything they represented," said Hayes.  "Every time you step out on that field you play as if it's your last time and you give it all."

When the team arrived in Japan, Hayes and Schram were immediately struck by the warm welcome the Japanese provided them.  They were in an entirely different part of the world and the culture was as pleasantly different as the detailed architecture.

"All they know is we're American and you would've thought we were their best friends and I think that was the coolest part about it," said Hayes.  "They were just so welcoming and so gracious to have us there."

Hayes and Schram spent most of their time preparing and training for the challenges ahead, but when they were free, and not doing homework or watching movies in their hotel room, they were exploring.  They visited downtown Tokyo, the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb memorial, the Japanese Gardens and even the US ambassador to Japan's home where they marveled at the Japanese culture.

"Everything in Japan is so intricate and detailed," said Schram.  "They're such perfectionists and everything they do is perfect, their cleaning, their architecture, everything is so particular and it was really cool to see that."

Though they kept busy, neither Hayes nor Schram forgot their true family back in Happy Valley.  They constantly updated their Nittany Lion teammates on what they were doing and even sent back a special video from the entire U-20 women's national team as a reminder that Penn State was always in their thoughts.

"The [U-20] team would stand behind us and me and Maya just said a little message to our team and then we said 'We Are' and then the whole U-20 team said 'Penn State' and we sent it to the team, which was cool," said Schram.

On the soccer field it was business as usual, especially for Hayes, who scored a hat trick in game one against Ghana.  She tallied four goals in her World Cup appearance and helped lead the U.S. team through group play and inevitably into the championship match against Germany.

"At the end of the day we just came through as a team and that was my focus going into it," said Hayes on her performance.  "Whatever happened, happened from there.  Obviously you have your own goals, but you always put the team goals before yours."

The U.S. had lost to Germany during group play, 3-0, and was an unmistakable underdog against the defending world champions, who had yet to concede a goal in their 2012 World Cup run.  In the end, the U.S. shocked Germany with a 1-0 victory and earned the gold.  Hayes and Schram could barely express how they felt when time expired.

"It was unbelievable to say that I was part of a team that's the best in the world," said Schram.  "Not many people get to say that and it's just incredible."

Nearly two weeks after the upset victory, the concept of world champions still hadn't sunk in.  Schram joked that some of her fellow U-20 teammates would message the group on Facebook, reminding them that they had just won the U-20 Women's World Cup, and the players would all respond with hysterical disbelief.

"It still hasn't even hit me yet," exclaimed Schram.  "We're just all in shock and it's just one of the coolest experiences ever and I'm so blessed that I got to be apart of it."

When reflecting on the experience in its entirety, Hayes and Schram each conveyed a different message they took from their time abroad.  Schram learned to accept the role she was given as a reserve, whether she saw play time or not, and used the opportunity to improve herself as a player and a teammate.  Hayes learned to enjoy the here and now, rather than dwell on the past or look too far into the future.

"I think that going to Japan and sitting on the bench was one of the most valuable lessons I could learn as a player," said Schram.  "I just learned to embrace my role and give everything that I have in my heart for my team and it'll pay off."

"Coach's last words to Schram and I before we left and what she said to us was: 'Live in the moment, enjoy the journey and don't for a second look past that,'" said Hayes, in response to what she took from her World Cup experience.  "That's the biggest thing I took away from it."

Penn State travels to Northwestern and Illinois this weekend.  The game against the Wildcats is slated for Friday night at 8 p.m. and the match at the Illini will take place Sunday afternoon.

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