By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State entered the 2012 soccer season with one goal in mind: play for a College Cup. The standard was set and the result was a team that ventured further than any in program history, reaching the National Championship game in San Diego.
It was a historic season and, in summary, head coach Erica Walsh described it simply as the pure satisfaction of achieving a goal after an entire year of relentless hard work and dedication.
"To put it all in perspective, I would say imagine a year, one year from now, you set a goal for yourself and you work towards it every day to the best of your ability and then you actually achieve that goal," said coach Walsh. "You realize as its going on that you control the things that you can control, but there's so much in your sport that's outside of your control that when it does come together, you got to cherish it. You got to live it and love it."
Let's take a look back at a memorable 2012 soccer season.
It Began With a Mentality
In 2011, Penn State fell to Wake Forest in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The Nittany Lions had broken through a second round barrier in the tournament that had plagued the team in the previous two seasons. It was then when the 2012 squad, led by a remarkable senior class, made the decision to train in the offseason harder than they ever had before.
"The entire tone of the season was set in the summer when they [the players] got fit and they played," said coach Walsh. "Their dedication made us [the coaches] so pleased and put us in such a good place that I wanted to work harder for them and the staff wanted to work harder for them. They inspired us."
The players returned in August fit and focused and they set the overarching goal of reaching the College Cup as motivation to overcome any adversity they would face.
"The most important day of this season was August 31st when I realized that our players came back fit," said coach Walsh. "When they came back fit and healthy, we could take on anything."
Challenges From Out of Conference
Penn State opened the season with seven out-of-conference opponents. Five of those teams would be selected to play in the NCAA tournament including Stanford, BYU, Virginia, West Virginia, and Central Michigan. Stanford and BYU would earn one-seeds alongside Penn State and Virginia would earn a No. 2 seed. All three of those opponents finished the year ranked in the top 10.
In addition, the Nittany Lions were without their top two goal scorers in junior forwards Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram, who were competing with the U.S. National Team in the U-20 Women's World Cup.
Injuries on defense plagued Penn State early on as the Nittany Lions lost senior defenders Jackie Molinda and Lexi Marton for the season along with temporary injuries to senior midfielder Bri Garcia and junior defender Bri Hovington.
Though Penn State fell in a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to top-ranked Stanford at home and later dropped a 3-1 decision at BYU, the Nittany Lions persevered with a 5-2-0 record and saw a record-breaking crowd of 5,117 fans against Stanford as well as the return of Hayes following BYU.
In the seven-game span, a group of talented young players emerged and gained valuable experience playing some of the top teams in the nation. Freshman forward Mallory Weber and Freshmen Midfielder Raquel Rodriguez earned starting positions and were a vital part of the top-rated offense in the country.
When Hayes and Schram returned from a U-20 Women's World Cup Championship to an already dynamic offense, the stage was set for another successful Big Ten conquest.
A 15th Year of Big Ten Dominance
The Big Ten featured five teams in the NCAA tournament, including Penn State, and the Nittany Lions cruised to an undefeated conference record (10-0-1) and a 15th consecutive Big Ten title.
The defense became a formidable force for opposing offenses as sophomore Whitney Church led the backline alongside sophomore Kori Chapic and Hovington. Though the attention was on the nation's leading offense, the defense notched four shutouts and allowed just 11 goals in 12 games.
A number of freshmen made an impact off the bench including Corey Persson, who appeared in all 27 matches and started in 14. Penn State's depth became crucial as the season wore on and fatigue set in.
The Nittany Lions clinched the title in dramatic fashion against a staunch Michigan defense in the second to last game of the regular season. Down 1-0, senior midfielder Christine Nairn scored the game-tying goal on a penalty kick with five minutes left in regulation. The game ended in a draw, but the contest would be settled in a memorable NCAA tournament.
Road to the College Cup
For Penn State, the 2012 season was separated into a series of smaller goals that ultimately would lead to achieving the team's premier goal of reaching the College Cup. As the Nittany Lions checked objectives off the list, the players set a new standard for themselves that would push them to a higher level and allow them to compete with the best.
"I think it's one thing to set goals, it's another thing to read back through them and to figure out where you are, where you went wrong and how to work towards them the next time," said coach Walsh. "We were doing that on a weekly/game basis this year."
Penn State suffered a setback in the Big Ten tournament, but had proven it was an elite team and earned the number one seed in the NCAA tournament, another goal checked off the list.
The Nittany Lions virtually swept the conference awards as coach Walsh earned Big Ten Coach of the Year, Hayes earned Forward of the Year, Nairn earned Midfielder of the Year, Church earned Defender of the Year, and Rodriguez earned Rookie of the Year. The talent was there and Penn State knew it was time for a deep run in the tournament.
After cruising through the first two rounds, the Nittany Lions ran into their first challenge in a rematch against Michigan. It was another defensive struggle, but this one couldn't end in a tie and was bound for penalty kicks.
Penn State had been 0-5 in games that went to penalty kicks prior to Michigan. Senior goalkeeper Erin McNulty had never played in a game that went to penalty kicks in her career. Four penalty kicks later and the Nittany Lions were down 0-2 and facing elimination.
McNulty's response: not today. The veteran keeper proceeded to make three consecutive saves, which were followed by three consecutive goals and Penn State was on to the next round.
Duke presented a completely new challenge, the likes of which the Nittany Lions hadn't faced since Stanford and BYU. The Blue Devils pressured Penn State the entire game, finishing with a 19-7 shot advantage. However, a lone goal off of a penalty kick by the senior, Nairn, in the 13th minute proved to be the decider as the defense united and held. Penn State was headed to the College Cup in San Diego.
"It was very obvious to me that they wanted to be there, which makes you want to be there," said coach Walsh. "You're driven by each other's energy and the energy was incredible at that point."
The schedule wouldn't get easier as the Nittany Lions faced fellow one-seed Florida State, who had defeated Duke earlier in the season and emerged as champions of the stacked ACC conference. Penn State led 1-0 and had virtually dominated play heading into the final minute, when Florida State scored to send the game into overtime.
With the momentum heavily in the Seminoles' favor, the Nittany Lions rallied as they had all season and scored just over one minute into overtime. The golden goal was scored Nairn, who is currently a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy Award, the highest honor in women's college soccer. Another objective off the list and Penn State was off to the program's first ever College Cup Final.
Though the Nittany Lions fell to North Carolina in the championship, they were just the second Big Ten school to reach the final (Wisconsin, 1991). This team's success will never be forgotten, as the players that follow will continue to play for those who came before them.
Looking Ahead to a Bright Future
Penn State graduates a phenomenal senior class; a group that experienced and battled through extraordinary adversity. The seniors established a standard on day one and set the tone for incoming freshmen, who, in turn, have made their impact.
"This is all our freshmen know now," said coach Walsh on the influence of the seniors. "The only thing they know is what the seniors showed them this year. They think that this is their standard and now they're looking at setting a new standard and if this is their baseline, then I am thrilled to think about what it's going to look like three years from now."
Though the Nittany Lions will lose the likes of Nairn, senior captain Maddie Evans, McNulty, Marton, Molinda, Garcia, Amanda Dotten and Kristin Hartmann, who are all leaders both on and off the field, the seniors passed their knowledge on to a capable and gifted junior class. These players, like Hayes, Schram, Hovington and Tani Costa are prepared to pick up where the departing leaders left off.
Coach Walsh is thrilled about what the future may bring. She believes success in any sport requires hard work and if her players are willing to put in the time and effort to succeed, then they can accomplish anything.
"I am excited to see how much harder we can work because I do think that we have another level," said coach Walsh. "We can get even better if we take that mentality and I think right now these players are looking for 'what next? How do we get better?"
Women's Soccer Review: A Season for the History Books
By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
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