By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.- After seven years as the head coach of the Penn State women's soccer team, Erica Walsh knows far too well how intense games in the NCAA Tournament can get, and how a few bounces here or there can determine the outcome of a game.
With her Nittany Lions deadlocked in a scoreless battle in the second round of the national tournament against Wake Forest, Walsh's team would battle their hearts out yet ultimately not get the bounces they needed, as a goal by Demon Deacons forwards Sarah Teegarden with less than ten minutes remaining handed Penn State a 1-0 loss.
"The effort that they gave was fantastic," said Walsh. "They put in the work and they were tackling, communicating, and certainly put in a winning effort."
The Nittany Lions had numerous chances, getting off 10 shots including a bullet from senior forward Tani Costa with two minutes remaining that came within a few inches of tying the game, yet they were unable to get a ball in the back of the net.
Afterwards, Walsh credited the performance of Wake Forest's defense, which was able to limit a Penn State attack that was coming off a three-goal game against Monmouth.
"On defense they were organized and compact and really took away our wide players," said Walsh. "We got some good looks and had some good chances we just couldn't convert any of them."
At the same time, the reigning National Coach of the Year could not have been more impressed with the job of her own defense, which kept the Demon Deacons off the scoreboard for 80 minutes in a game that, ultimately, had to be won by someone.
In particular, Walsh praised the effort of senior defender Bri Hovington, who stepped in front of a number of Wake Forest's 14 shots in an attempt to give the Nittany Lions and goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom their second straight NCAA Tournament shutout.
"Bri was on point today, communicating with everyone and blocking shots," said Walsh. "She was tough to penetrate and did exactly what a senior should do."
A year after coming just one game short of winning a National Championship, going home in the second round in heartbreaking fashion is a tough pill for the Nittany Lions to swallow.
Despite the disappointment, Walsh was adamant that she wouldn't trade the experiences that she went through with this group of players for anything.
"I would rather lose with this team than win with any other team," said Walsh. "Soccer can be a frustrating game but they fought through adversity all season and became closer as a team."
In a season that ends with their record at 15-7-1, the Nittany Lions certainly went through a roller coaster of emotions throughout the past few months.
Although their campaign ends on a bitter note, the growth and development that the team went through will benefit every member of the squad going forward.
"This team was a pleasure to coach every day," said Walsh. "They certainly had their ups and downs but they took care of every little detail and improved as the season went along."
The biggest disappointment for Walsh is that her seniors have to end their season with a bad taste in their mouths after working so hard to get back to where the team was last year.
Even with their careers coming to an abrupt end, the Nittany Lions senior class - which includes Emily Carrollo, Tani Costa, Maya Hayes, Bri Hovington, Erin Kehoe, Lexi Marton, and Taylor Schram - can exit the program knowing that their impact will not be forgotten any time soon.
"I look around and I see all the seniors hanging around with the freshmen and influencing them," said Walsh. "They will look back and be proud of how they transformed themselves as leaders."
Moving forward, Walsh feels as though her team still has as bright a future as any program in the country.
While they are losing a top-notch group of seniors, the Nittany Lions will return a number of key veterans next year, including midfielder Emily Hurd, defender Whitney Church, and forward Mallory Weber, and come next season, the Blue and White will be as fired up as ever to reach new heights.
"This rising group of seniors has tremendous leadership ability," said Walsh. "They don't take anything for granted and they have special qualities that will help our program continue to grow."