By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State women's soccer has come a long way from where it began at the start of the 2012 season.
The Nittany Lions set their sights on winning the Big Ten title for the 15th consecutive season early on, but have since emerged as one of the top teams in the country, earning the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
"That's exactly what we worked for the entire year," said sophomore defender Whitney Church on earning the top seed. "To see that all of our hard work has paid off and that that's what we've earned is absolutely fantastic and we wouldn't have it any other way. We put so much hard work behind it."
Church earned the Big Ten Defender of the Year award for her outstanding play in the backline where she assumed the role of the defensive leader after senior defenders Jackie Molinda and Lexi Marton fell to season-ending knee injuries.
Church joins a group of four Nittany Lions who all earned significant awards. Her fellow award winners included junior forward Maya Hayes, who earned Big Ten Forward of the Year, senior midfielder Christine Nain, who earned Big Ten Midfielder of the Year, freshman midfielder Raquel Rodriguez, who earned the Rookie of the Year award, and head coach Erica Walsh, who was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for the second time in her tenure as the coach of Penn State.
"The individual awards are just a tremendous honor for these young players," said coach Walsh. "It's just a testament to this squad and the program."
The Nittany Lions face a difficult road ahead in the NCAA tournament. Though it is important for the players to focus on their upcoming match against Long Island-Brooklyn (10-7-3), it's difficult to miss a potential bout with Boston College (10-7-3).
The Eagles have had a deceiving season full of highs and lows, but notched a 3-2 win at home against top-seeded Florida State along with a 1-1 tie at defending national champion and top-seeded Stanford.
Should Penn State move on to the third round, the Nittany Lions could potentially face an interesting rematch against the Wolverines, who posted a 1-1 tie during the regular season, despite Penn State dominating Michigan in shots 31-9. Nevertheless, the coaches are confident in the improvements the team has made thus far and they are taking one game at a time.
"I like our chances in any game," said assistant coach Joel Bancroft. "There's several out there that will press us and on any given day it will be a coin toss, but I feel good about our group and I feel like our best soccer is in front of us."
If there is one critical aspect these players understand, it's that they need to take their game to the next level in order to compete on the national stage.
"You got to make sure you're turned on at all times," said Church. "You just have to make sure that you show up and make sure you play hard and leave everything out on the field because you never know, it could be your last."
That work hard mentality is what the Nittany Lions will need to gear up for the NCAA tournament. The team will be practicing throughout the week, focusing on the little things as well as on preparing themselves both mentally and physically for what their opponents might bring their way.
"It's going to take a lot of hard work and determination," said Church. "We're going to have to take it day by day and practice hard every day. We'll take it game by game and whatever our opponent throws at us, we're going to figure out how to handle it."
"We'll just focus on us and fine-tune things this week, whether it's our technique or finishing chances, and hopefully get everything meshing together at the right time," said Nairn. "It'll come out Saturday night."
Earning the one seed in the tournament will give Penn State the welcome advantage of playing at home on Jeffrey Field, where the Nittany Lions will be able to bask in an electric atmosphere and defend their home turf.
"To ask me to put into words what it feels like to play on Jeffrey Field in front of our home crowd, it's indescribable for me," said coach Walsh.
In addition to playing at home, Penn State features one of the most prolific offenses in the country. It's an offense that attacks relentlessly and has received goals from 13 different players. The Nittany Lions have outscored their opponents this season 62-20 and the coaches appreciate the vast number of weapons to choose from.
"We have the best attack in the country and those guys need to show up and they will," said assistant coach Tim Wassell. "When those guys have their attention to detail right, that's when we're going to be at our best."
Penn State has been battletested already this season, having faced eight teams currently in the NCAA tournament, including fellow No. 1 seeds Stanford and BYU and second-seeded Virginia. The Nittany Lions posted a 5-3-1 record against those teams and the challenging schedule has served to prepare them for what's ahead in the NCAA tournament.
Penn State will face Long Island-Brooklyn in the first round of the tournament at 6:00 p.m. Saturday evening under the lights on Jeffrey Field.