UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With a Big Ten Championship on the line, the Penn State women's lacrosse team entered the tournament feeling confident. The Nittany Lions took down Northwestern in the second round, bringing them one step closer to the trophy. While the team was excited, the job was not done yet. Penn State still needed one more win.
When Ohio State (13-7) took down previously undefeated Maryland, the Lions (14-4) prepared for the challenge and trusted in their abilities. After 60 minutes of play, Penn State emerged as the conference's first winner by defeating the Buckeyes, 13-11.
The Nittany Lions are Big Ten champions.
"I don't know if it sunk in yet," said head Coach Missy Doherty. "I think it was a great game. I just love that competing aspect of it, but certainly being the first Big Ten winner is such an honor. We have such a great tradition in our program that goes so far back. Our alums are so proud of our program and have done well in the past. It's nice to really put Penn State on the map with our first Big Ten Championship."
Key to the win was Penn State's offense, which has dominated throughout the entirety of the season. Senior Tatum Coffey led the way with her four goals, but in all the team saw scoring from seven different players in the final. This balance up front made the Blue and White a difficult team to beat. They challenged Ohio State's defense, went to the net and came away from the game shooting at 52 percent.
For Coffey and the rest of the senior class, this game was crucial. With so little time left to play in their careers, every second counts. They wanted to leave it all on the field, which is exactly what they did.
"I honestly had an epiphany," Coffey said. "It was a moment that just hit me, and I realized that I'm a senior. I'm never going to be in this position again. So, I let that take over me and decided to be a leader out there and pump everyone up."
Going into halftime, the Lions had a three-goal lead. Nevertheless, the team knew it would not be an easy task to finish the game, especially against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State controlled play in the opening minutes of the second, tallying three consecutive goals to even the scoring. The Nittany Lions called a timeout to regroup, but they were never concerned. Staying calm proved to be key.
"Right when they quickly scored three goals on us, we stayed confident and composed," said Abby Smucker. "We knew that we had to pick up our defense a little bit more, but I was confident in the way our defense was playing. And, having Emi [Smith] back there in the cage was critical for us."
All season long, Smucker has anchored the Nittany Lion defense. Doherty has labeled her the team organizer, keeping the Lions cohesive in the back. Her play in the semi-final and final helped boost the Lions and did not go unnoticed as Smucker was named the tournament MVP.
Also stepping up for the Lions was Emi Smith in the cage. She made seven stops that kept the Lions ahead. Her biggest save of the game came with just over a minute to play. Had she not made the stop, the Buckeyes would have pulled within one. The dynamic of the game would have shifted.
"She just came up with some really crucial saves," said Doherty of Smith. "I think she's been solid all year, but when the game is on the line I think she gets better. Especially in that last minute coming up with such a huge save, it was really that last step we needed to seal up the game."
As time evaporated, Penn State realized the magnitude of what it had done. This team battled through tough losses, through injuries and through close games to get to that point. The work it had done all season long finally paid off.
"It shows that we can bounce back," Smith said. "It shows that we can improve on the losses that we've had, and we can always learn from the things we don't do right. There's always room for improvement, and I think the team really shows that. We have improved a lot over this season, and I think that's why we came up big here. We just focused on the things that we do well and emphasized that."
From the start of the year, this team knew the season would be special. It worked hard day in and day out for this opportunity. Now, the Nittany Lions could not be more proud of their accomplishment. They will forever be the first Big Ten Champions.
"We really the whole year tried to work on proving who we are, and we made a statement today," said Coffey. "I'm so proud of my team for doing that. We really just knew what we needed to work on, knew what we needed to do, and we went out there and did it."