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Defense, Leadership Play Vital Role in Comeback Win Over No. 15 Virginia

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By Ryan Berti, Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The fifth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions, for most of the first half, found themselves in uncharted territory.


With a command in time of possession thanks to owning the draw control, it was the Virginia Cavaliers that took a note from the Nittany Lions' playbook and got out to a fast start. With Penn State facing a sizable deficit and playing an unfamiliar role, the squad needed to find a way to get back to their usual style of play and bounce back.


Following a Virginia goal to make it a 5-2 lead for the visitors, head coach Missy Doherty took initiative and called a timeout with 12:36 remaining in the first half. The team understood what they needed to do, and on Senior Day the players knew who to look to to lead the way.


Seniors Cat Rainone and Abby Smucker took charge with both their play and composure. While both were aware of the current situation, they kept things cool and collected, and the rest of the team followed suit.


"We definitely have the athleticism on the team so that wasn't an area where we were struggling, it was more mentally, so we just needed to regroup as a team, calm each other down and stay composed and just finish on the small things," Smucker said. Rainone seconded that with words of advice for her fellow teammates like "next play" and "still a lot of time left" to make sure the team's mindset was focused on the right things.


The rest of the team answered their call as the Nittany Lions would rally to score 10 of the contest's final 13 goals in a 12-8 win. But, while the offense eventually got going, it was the defense that opened the door.


Virginia continued to hold onto the ball for long stretches of play, keeping the Penn State defense constantly on its toes. Constantly mirroring the Cavaliers quick attackers, the Blue and White kept them contained and made plays as needed. Rainone stepped up and made two huge saves on shots that would have kept Virginia rolling, but the senior goalkeeper shut each attempt down with standup saves from a stick's length out. She would go on to have 14 saves on the day


Good defense turned into good offense as the final three minutes of the half came with a huge swing in momentum.


Freshman Maria Auth was hit on a pass while striding down the field into Cavalier territory. She crossed in front of the net without letting off a shot and ended up losing possession, but there to scoop up the ground ball next to the goal was senior attacker Steph Lazo who quickly rifled off a shot while colliding with a Virginia defender. The ball blew by the goalie and gave Penn State its first goal in nearly 18 minutes, making it a 6-3 deficit.


A heads up charge taken by Smucker with 57 seconds left would win the Nittany Lions the ball late in the half, and a following penalty by Virginia's Maggie Jackson gave Penn State a brief advantage. It ended up being just enough for Penn State as Katie O'Donnell squeaked a goal into the half's final four seconds and gave the Nittany Lions a much-needed boost heading into the half that led to their second half win.  


Also providing them life was the record crowd on hand to witness the top-five team's Senior Day game. The game saw 922 people scattered across the hill and the bleachers, giving Penn State the encouragement it needed to mount a comeback.


"When something goes our way and the crowd cheers it definitely swings the momentum in our favor and I think today was a home field advantage for sure," Rainone said.

After the break, it took the Blue and White just under nine and a half minutes to even the score at six. The teams again would trade goals, but with 16:33 remaining, Maggie Gallagher broke through to give Penn State the 8-7 lead, its first since the matchup's opening eight minutes.


Success at the draw spoke volumes for the Nittany Lions' offensive burst. After losing six of the game's first eight, Penn State crawled back to win the war with a 13-9 lead in the department at the end of the day.


The players continued to carry solid defense into quality offense and owned the closing 10 minutes. Two more goals by O'Donnell, giving her a team-high four on the day, and three more total would allow Penn State to close the game strong and give the unit the Senior Day win. The win marks the Blue and White's 13th on the year and gives the program six straight wins.


While it was not the smoothest ride, the end result was still as Penn State hoped and allowed the seniors to cap off their special day in style.


"The past four years have been great here, and like I've said before, each year we've made strides in the right direction as a program, so to finish on a high note here on Senior Day was awesome," Smucker said.


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