Mass. - A bitter loss in the NCAA national semifinals isn't the type of ending
that anyone would want to close out a season, a historic one nonetheless.
Perhaps more than the sting of the loss or the sight of the scoreboard though, is the character and determination of those who were instrumental in making it all happen.
"It definitely didn't go our way today," head coach Missy Doherty said, reflecting on a 20-10 NCAA semifinal loss to top-seeded Maryland. "I'm so proud of our players to get us here and the season that we had was just awesome."
Penn State shot out to a 7-0 start to open the year, with a trio of wins coming against top 20 teams. By Big Ten time, the Nittany Lions went 5-1 with their only conference loss coming by way of a close 16-14 setback against the Terps, merely weeks ago.
As the NCAA postseason arrived, Penn State had reset from a loss in the Big Ten Tournament, scoring an NCAA Tournament-record 19 goals against JMU in the second round. The Nittany Lions then gritted out a 14-12 win against Princeton in the quarterfinals to earn a repeat trip to the NCAA national semifinals, marking the first time PSU has made back-to-back appearances in nearly 30 years.
As the wins continued to stack up, a new Nittany Lion emerged with a career day, or key contribution on seemingly every occasion, only helping to bolster Penn State's final tally in the win column to 17, marking the most victories in a single season since 1989.
Embedded in the foundation of every successful season though is the character of a team's veteran leaders, something the Nittany Lions surely have no shortage of this year.
"When you first take over a program, you want the players to buy into what you maybe can do, and then as soon as you start doing those things you're able to recruit with what's going on at the current time," Doherty said.
With both buy in and production as the result of the now senior class, for Doherty, the class embraced the vision and then set out to make it a reality.
"To see all of those guys really contribute greatly both on and off the field has been a huge reason why we're in these matches and in the mix," Doherty said.
For First Team IWLCA All-American senior Steph Lazo, each opportunity to make strides toward the vision has been a point of reflection all week.
"Our first year we lose in the first round," Lazo said. "Second year, my sophomore year, we were Big Ten champs. And then last year we go to the final four, this year we go to the final four."
Perhaps one of the most prolific seniors in Nittany Lion history, Lazo concluded her final game in the Blue and White with a pair of points against the Terrapins, scooping up her own rebound for a lone goal in the second half. She ends her career ranked seventh on the Penn State all-time list with 211 points.
Along with fellow seniors in defenders Abby Smucker and Erika Spilker as well as goalkeeper Cat Rainone just to name a few, it's the entire senior class responsible for paving the way.
"I told them, I'm like, you have to keep knocking on the door before you can go through it, and we don't do that without the leadership of our seniors," Doherty said.
Although leaving behind a proud legacy both on and off the field, for Lazo, what's still to come for Penn State is certainly promising.
"We have fought all season ever since we stepped on campus in August, the future looks super bright, and I couldn't be more proud," Lazo said.
Among a deep group of returners, Penn State sophomore Madison Carter and juniors Katie O'Donnell and Maggie Gallagher highlighted Friday's NCAA national semifinal outing. O'Donnell led the way with four goals while Gallagher finished with three to match a career-high mark.
Carter chipped in one goal and grabbed seven draw controls, etching her name into the Penn State record book as the fourth Nittany Lion in program history to score 70 or more goals in a single season.
Drawing from the positives from a year for the ages, the Nittany Lions will look to take the good with the bad today, but certainly there's every reason to head home to Happy Valley proud.
"I love our players, and I love being part of the group, not just on the field but off the field," Doherty said. "They're great students, and they're great people, and they have such great character. I just want the best for them."
Reach Arielle Sargent at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent