By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Offenses win games, but defenses win championships. The saying holds true for virtually every sport and after suffering a series of injuries on defense, No. 4 Penn State women's soccer sought leadership from sophomore defender Whitney Church.
"I think that Whit Church has been arguably the most important piece on our team this season," said head coach Erica Walsh. "We call on her game after game. She's been the anchor of our team."
Injuries have plagued the Nittany Lions defensively since the start of the 2012 season, when they lost starting senior defenders Jackie Molinda and Lexi Marton to season ending injuries followed by an injury to junior Bri Hovington, who has since returned. More recently sophomore defender Kori Chapic fell victim to a head injury.
The player holding the defense together has been Church, who has shown a veteran ability to lead and communicate in the backline.
"I just tried to take on as much as I possibly [could] and help everyone out and just tried to keep our backline going," said Church. "I think it's been going pretty good."
The Nittany Lions have an offense that hasn't been shutout once this season and can score profusely, with 60 goals thus far, but even the best offenses have bad days. The untold story for the fourth-ranked team in the nation has been a young defense that has allowed just 19 goals through 19 games to go along with seven shutouts.
On a day when the offense can't seem to score, it's comforting for coaches and players alike to have a defense behind them they can trust.
"It's extremely important for our defense to keep us in the game," said Church. "We put everything on the line, our backline works extremely hard. I know that we're going to do anything we can to help this team."
With an offense as talented as Penn State's, coach Walsh likes to attack opponents relentlessly, sending as many as six or seven players into the offensive third. The inherent risk such a strategy brings is that it leaves the defense open to a counter attack. Nevertheless, the tactic has worked because coach Walsh knows Church and her defense can handle the pressure.
"Playing the formation that we do, we open ourselves up a little bit more to the counter attack situation," said Church. "Our communication definitely has to be high. We all have to be aware of what's going on around us."
"We wouldn't be playing this particular system if it wasn't for Whit Church," said coach Walsh. "She allows us to put more numbers into the attack, but as a result, we end up putting her under a great deal of pressure."
As the leader on defense, Church has been playing under different circumstances than she's used to, yet she has handled the increased role like an experienced senior. Her method has been to set high expectations for herself, which results in her never backing down from a challenge.
"She's just learning on the fly right now," said coach Walsh. "The greatest thing about Whit Church is the standard she sets for herself is greater than any standard anyone else could ever set for her."
Church has played an instrumental role on defense, but humbly understands that the Nittany Lions wouldn't be where they are today without the team. Each player has her own role to play that moves the team forward.
"It's not just me," said Church. "We all have our part that we play to keep each other going and I think we've done a really good job with it so far."
On top of her defensive capabilities, Church has also developed a knack for finding the back of the net on set pieces, scoring twice off of corner kicks from freshman midfielder Raquel Rodriguez.
Church's overall impact on the team this season has been crucial and has allowed her to garner respect from her fellow players.
"I think [the impact Church has had] can be defined by her teammates' reaction to her and everything she does on and off the field," said coach Walsh. "There's not a player on our team that is more respected by her teammates and her coaching staff than Whit Church."
With the possible return of Chapic in the near future, the Nittany Lion defense is virtually set. Penn State enters the Big Ten tournament as the top seed and the players are eager to earn a number one seed in the NCAA tournament as well. In order to reach that goal, they will have to prove themselves once again in conference play. Coach Walsh knows that the keys will be a flexible attack and a staunch defense.
"In order to get the one seed in the NCAA tournament, we've got to put our best foot forward over the next three games," said Coach Walsh. "We're going to have to rely on different pieces in order to carry us through.
Heading into the first game against Iowa, the players are focused and confident in themselves as well as the team as a whole.
"There's nothing else on our minds right now except for winning the Big Ten tournament," said Church. "We're going to go in, we're going to play with all we have and we're going to play with all the hard work and determination that we possibly can."
Women's Soccer, Church Anchors the Backline
By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
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