By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSTY PARK, Pa. - Moments after her squad finished off a dominant, 6-1, victory over Purdue, Penn State women's soccer head coach Erica Walsh glanced up at the scoreboard and smiled.
Just over a month after the Nittany Lions began their season with 2-2 tie against West Virginia, it was hard for Walsh to believe how far her players have come in a short period of time.
"This team has sorted out a lot of different challenges," said Walsh. "There were a lot of answers we were looking for at the start of the year and I think that we're getting them and it's very exciting."
Coming off a season in which they came one win short of a national championship, Penn State entered the 2013 campaign with high expectations and a hunger to end the season as the best team in college soccer.
After needing two goals in the final ten minutes against West Virginia just to net a tie, and then gutting out a narrow 2-1 victory over Hofstra, Penn State would fall at fifth ranked Virginia, 5-1, in what would be a turning point for the team.
With their record at 1-1-1, the Nittany Lions would refuse to hang their heads and returned from Virginia determined to get their season back on the track.
"After that game we got our heads on straight and said to ourselves that it was time to get back after it," said senior forward Maya Hayes. "We learned a lot about ourselves and decided to keep our attitude up and to bring the standard up."
In the seven games since, the Nittany Lions have not only wound up victorious each time, they have also managed to win in every way possible, from low scoring nail-biters to dramatic comebacks.
It all began with a goal by senior forward Taylor Schram in the 53rd minute against Boston that would put the Nittany Lions back on track with a 1-0 victory. The momentum of that game would carry over into their next contest against Bucknell, when the Blue and White kept the pressure on the Bison all night. In that game, five different players scored en route to an impressive 6-0 victory.
"We always talk about coming out strong and playing well the first ten minutes," said junior midfielder Kori Chapic. "That game was when we started to impose ourselves on other teams and really step up."
After the Bucknell win, two more games remained in their three game road stretch and Walsh would see the true character of her team come out in a pair of grueling weekend contests against Oklahoma State and Tulsa.
Going up a against a 3-1-2 Cowgirls team and playing in front of a fiery, hostile crowd, the Nittany Lions would fall behind, 2-0, in the first 25 minutes before storming back with a vengeance, getting two goals from Hayes, one from Chapic, and another from sophomore forward Mallory Weber to claim a 4-2 victory.
"After getting beat bad in a similar situation against Virginia, we needed to see our leaders step up in the Oklahoma State game," said Walsh. "They lifted themselves back up and that comeback could be seen as a real turning point for us."
Just two days later, the Lions would continue their flair for the dramatic when Hayes broke a 2-2 tie against Tulsa with a goal in the final minute of regulation to bring their record to 6-1-1 as they joyfully returned home to Jeffrey Field to begin their favorite part of the season, their Big Ten competition.
"I think our out of conference schedule tested us, but it also allowed us to grow after each game," said Hayes, who leads Penn State with 11 goals on the season. "We consistently got better after each game and we've been steadily climbing up that ladder."
With a tough road stretch behind them and the familiarity of the pitch at Jeffrey Field beneath their feet, the Nittany Lions would begin their in-conference schedule similar to how they began the season, by falling behind 2-0 late in the second half against Northwestern.
Just 11 minutes from seeing their five game winning streak get snapped, the Lions would once again prove their resilience. After junior defender Whitney Church and Hayes scored back-to-back goals to send the game past regulation, where Church would give her team a 3-2 victory with her second goal in double overtime.
"The game against Northwestern was such a roller coaster of emotions," said sophomore midfielder Raquel Rodriguez. "The way we responded to adversity will always stand out in my mind."
Now, with their victory over Purdue having extended their win streak to seven games, the Nittany Lions know that while they are in a good place, it is not time for them to get complacent.
Having won games in so many different ways, Hayes and her teammates believe it is time to make sure their production remains consistent from game to game and from half to half.
"Right now it's not a defense thing or a goaltender thing, it's about having a collective team effort," said Hayes. "We want to keep a clean slate and start working on getting more shutouts."
Having coached her fair share of great players and teams in her seven years at Penn State, Walsh knows that the key for her team the rest of the season is simply keeping their focus.
If the Nittany Lions want to get back to where they were last year and make it one step farther, it will require a kind of mental toughness that Walsh knows her team has.
"We need to stay humble and understand how hard it is to get back to where we were last year," said Walsh. "I think these seniors remember what has held this team back in the past and they're using it to fuel them going forward."