By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa- The game had long since ended, and the fans had all cleared out of Klockner Stadium in Charlottesville, Va, yet Penn State star forward Maya Hayes couldn't bring herself to leave the field.
With the Nittany Lions having just been eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after falling to Wake Forest, 1-0, in a heartbreaker, the senior decided to take a moment to reflect on the season that she and her teammates had just gone through.
"After that game I didn't want to leave the field until somebody forced me to," said Hayes. "Thinking about how our season was really over was so surreal."
Even with the premature ending, the 2013 Penn State women's soccer team went on a ride that saw many highs, a few lows, and ultimately the growth and maturation of every individual on the roster. Looking back, it was a season that no member of the Nittany Lions will ever forget.
New Season, New Challenges
Following a 2012 campaign that saw the team come one win away from a national championship, Hayes and her teammates approached last summer with one thought in their mind, improving their fitness level.
"Going into the offseason we were mainly focused on fitness," said Hayes. "We knew we had high expectations so we really worked on ourselves all summer."
As the Nittany Lions tirelessly trained throughout the summer, they did so knowing that they would take the field for the upcoming season needing to fill the huge void left by recently graduated All-American midfielder Christine Nairn.
Without the player that had been the catalyst for them throughout their NCAA Tournament run, the Lions knew it would take a collective effort rather than just one player stepping up in order to move on.
"Christine was a special player but we knew we didn't need just one player to step up," said senior midfielder Taylor Schram. "We needed to step up as a unit to compensate."
It may have only been Aug. 30, but the Nittany Lions knew that they had to look at themselves in the mirror.
Following a season opening tie against West Virginia and a narrow 2-1 victory over Hofstra, the Lions had fallen to Virginia on the road by a score of 5-1, and they knew they needed to step it up.
"The Virginia game was a shocker," said Hayes. "We took the lessons from that game and saw what we could work on."
From the disappointment against Virginia came the team's strongest stretch of the season, as the Nittany Lions won their next nine contests, many of them in thrilling fashion.
Along the way the Blue and White proved that no lead against them was ever safe, something that they established in wins against Oklahoma State on Sept. 13 and Northwestern on Sept 20.
After overcoming an early 2-0 deficit to rally for a 4-2 victory against the Cowgirls, the Lions pulled off an even more challenging feat a week later against the Wildcats, scoring two goals in the final ten minutes to even the score, before junior defender Whitney Church ended the game with her second goal of the evening in overtime.
"Coming back from being down two goals in both of those games we really established a belief in ourselves," said Hayes. "We knew what our roles were and what we had to do."
As the Nittany Lions continued on their winning streak that featured signature wins over conference opponents Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin, they received contributions from not only veterans like Hayes and Schram but also a group of young players eager to make their mark.
Along with new starting sophomore goalie Britt Eckerstrom and freshman defenders Salina Williford and Brittany Basinger, the player that impressed head coach Erica Walsh the most was sophomore forward Mallory Weber, who tallied seven goals and 22 points in just her second season.
"Mallory is so dangerous and she really stepped up as a leader this year," said Walsh. "She had no problem letting her teammates know that things were going to be done a certain way."
Weathering the Storm
All seasons in all sports have their ups and downs and the 2013 season for Walsh and her team was no different.
After their 10-1-1 start, the Nittany Lions faced the toughest part of their schedule down the stretch of the regular season, dropping four games to conference opponents Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Nebraska, all just by one goal.
"The Big Ten was tough this year and those teams played with a lot of heart," said Schram. "I looked myself in the mirror after those games and told myself that I didn't want to have any regrets."
Knowing that the Big Ten title was out of their reach, the Nittany Lions soldiered on, winning their regular season finale against Michigan State, 3-0. After a second round exit in the Big Ten Tournament, the Nittany Lions gave their seniors one last great moment at home, dominating Monmouth, 3-0, behind a two-goal performance from senior forward Tani Costa.
"There was no better way to end my home career," said Schram. "It was a great way to say goodbye to our fans."
Moving Forward and Looking Back
While the loss to Wake Forest brought the Lions season to an end sooner than they would have desired, there isn't a single memory from this season that the players won't cherish.
The camaraderie, the cohesion, and the personalities involved make this group a team that each player couldn't be prouder to be a part of.
"Success is defined in different ways but I wouldn't change this team for anything," said Schram. "When I think back on this season I'll think of my teammates."
Though Walsh will miss the group of seniors that includes Emily Carrollo, Costa, Hayes, Bri Hovington, Erin Kehoe, Lexi Marton and Schram, she is optimistic about what the future of program holds, with key players like Church, Eckerstrom, Emily Hurd, and Weber set to return.
"Next year we'll have a different team personality but we've got some great players coming back," said Walsh. "I'll always remember this year's team as a cohesive group that never went in separate directions."