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Lightning Strikes for Nittany Lions in Regular Season Finale

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11439603.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State women's soccer team defeated rival Michigan in the regular season finale on Wednesday night by a score of 3-1. The victory solidified a record of 13-3-2 (8-2-1) for the Nittany Lions in 2015.

Soggy conditions made for an interesting matchup, as rain littered the borough of State College for the entirety of the day. Luckily, the showers subsided a bit during game time, but the damp conditions were prevalent nonetheless.

The effects of the soggy turf were evident early on, as players worked to be sharp will ball handling. Initially, both teams appeared frustrated by the damp pitch. Passes from both teams were skidding a touch too far and players were adjusting how they made cuts on the field.

The first 32 minutes were tough from both sides, and neither team was able to build much consistency on the attack. It was looking like a physical, defensive battle was on our hands.

Then lightning struck.

In the 33rd minute, senior captain Raquel Rodriguez found herself with the ball and space in the middle of the attacking third. The 2015 World Cup star touched the ball ahead and fired a rocket that curled past the keeper and found the bottom left corner of the net.

It was even Rodriguez's 22nd birthday.

"I wanted to score for sure," said Rodriguez. "Obviously you want to score every game, but this one was special."

Immediately before the goal, Nickolette Driesse made a great play from behind to take the ball from a Michigan midfielder. Ten seconds later, the ball found Rodriguez who did the rest.

Right after play resumed, a Michigan defender turned the ball over to Penn State's best goal scorer, Megan Schafer, with no help behind her. Schafer gladly accepted the gift and beat the goalie one-on-one for her Big Ten-leading 10th goal this season.

"When the goalie comes out, it's almost the ideal situation for a forward," Schafer said. "We practice that all the time, placing the ball where you see an opening."

Before anyone could catch their breath, Driesse added to the total with an absolute snipe from 29 yards out. Driesse took a few dribbles in the middle and dipped her attempt up and over the goalie and back down into the top right corner for her second goal of 2015.

"Yeah, it was definitely the best goal I've scored at Penn State," said Driesse. "We do a lot of finishing before and after practice, and this week I was really focusing on distance shots."

The three goals were scored in a seemingly impossible span of 2:36. Michigan hadn't given up one goal in the previous 212 minutes played.

"We talked to the team about saving our best for last," said head coach Erica Walsh. "It's exciting to see a 90-minute performance. I think up to this point we had put together a couple of good 45 or 70 minutes but tonight was a good 90-minute performance and a good way to finish the regular season."

Coming into the contest, Big Ten title implications were on the line, as were the top six seeds for the Big Ten Tournament. Only three points separated second-place Penn State from sixth-place Minnesota, but the Nittany Lions did their job and clinched at least home field advantage in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament with Thursday's win.

All that was left to resolve was the Big Ten regular season title, which would be decided a few hours after Penn State's win in the Wisconsin-Northwestern match. Penn State had never rooted for conference foe Northwestern so hard, and the Wildcats pulled off a double overtime victory to bring Penn State and Wisconsin to a tie atop the conference at 8-2-1. The combination of wins from the Nittany Lions and Northwestern handed Penn State its unprecedented 17th Big Ten title in the last 18 seasons.

Both teams will share the regular season crown, but
thanks to the 4-0 shutout of the Badgers earlier this season, the Nittany Lions owned the tiebreaker and will be the No. 1 seed for the Big Ten Tournament.

Penn State will begin postseason play on Sunday at Jeffery Field against No. 8-seed Illinois.

Nittany Lion Women's Soccer - What's in a Number?

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11423023.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Everyone who played organized sports at a young age knows the importance of the jersey number. There was always a scrum of some sort when it came time to pick those numbers, and if two teammates wanted the same one, it got heated.

Some might think this withers out once these young athletes mature and transition to the college game, but the battle royale for jersey numbers is still very much alive in Penn State's locker room, albeit in good fun.

There's an unthinkable number of reasons why athletes pick the numbers they do, and every one is unique to each player on the team. Favorite numbers can stem from a favorite athlete, a childhood memory, or a lucky superstition, just to name a few.

The Penn State women's soccer team gave us some insight on their numbers and the stories behind them. But first, let's take a quick history lesson on the Penn State uniforms.

Uniform Trends

Since 1994, Penn State's uniform numbers have stretched no further than 33. Only one player (Zoe Bouchelle from 2004-08) has worn 33 in the Blue and White's great history, but nothing higher 33 is available. As much fun as seeing a number 99 striding down the field would be, don't plan on it anytime soon.

"Other programs do that," said head coach Erica Walsh. "[North] Carolina is notorious for giving crazy numbers like that. To us it's more about keeping with soccer tradition. We try to keep it consistent."

The most worn numbers to date are 14 and 24. Ten players have used each number. Ellie Jean currently wears No. 14 and Cecilia Knaub reps No. 24.

The least used numbers come from the bottom and the top of the totem pole. The aforementioned 33 is the loneliest of the bunch, but 31 and 00 were each home to only three players' backs over the years. No current players wear any of these numbers.

No. 13 Christie Welsh

The only number in Penn State women's soccer history to ever be retired is the glorified No. 13 that was worn by Christie Welsh from 1999-2002. Welsh produced the single greatest career ever witnessed in Happy Valley, and she's truly deserving of such an honor.

"We retired 13 because of Christie's unbelievable career here," Walsh said. "She was our only Hermann Trophy winner and that was the big thing. To be recognized as National Player of the Year, we thought it was worthy of retiring her number."

Welsh was awarded the Hermann Trophy in her junior year, but her accolades don't stop there. In her freshman season, Welsh led the nation with 27 goals scored and led the Nittany Lions to their first ever College Cup appearance.

She was an NSCAA All-American all four years and the Big Ten Player of the Year in three.

Over the course of her collegiate career, Welsh notched 82 goals, 52 assists, and 27 game-winning goals. All three statistics are not only the most in Penn State history, but the Big Ten's as well.

Current Players

Elizabeth Ball- Sophomore No. 7

A lot of times, players don't get their first choice coming in as a freshmen. Unfortunately for Ball, she was beaten out by fellow incoming freshman Megan Schafer for her favorite number.

"I actually wanted No. 4 but I ended up with No. 7," Ball said. "I've had four my whole life, but I love No. 7 now."

Emily Ogle- Sophomore No. 10

Some players decide to explore other uniform numbers in college.

"All throughout club I was actually No. 9," said Ogle. When I came to college I wanted to switch it up. I'll probably stick with 10 the rest of the way. It's grown on me."

Perhaps the number 10 choice wasn't so random, however. The No. 10 has been a symbol of solid midfield play at Penn State for two decades.

"Soccer of all sports has a numbering system," Walsh said. "The one number we stay true to is the No. 10. We've got Ogle and [Christine] Nairn and we've had some good No. 10s so that's something we try to stick to."

Ellie Jean- Freshman No. 14

The number choosing process for Penn State is a system based on seniority, thus giving the upperclassmen the first choice, and deservedly so. More often than not, players keep one number throughout their entire career. Freshman Ellie Jean's lifelong digit is worn by senior Megan Ritchey.

"I've always had No. 2 growing up playing soccer," said Jean. "My mom works at UConn. She works with the men's soccer program there. So when I first starting playing I really liked one of the men's players and he was No. 2. I knew it wasn't going to be available so I chose 14."

Next season, Jean's coveted number two will be available for the picking. Don't be surprised to see Jean in different threads next season.

Mallory Weber- Senior No. 16

A sentimental value is often placed on one's jersey number. Weber was another freshman who couldn't attain her favorite number, but she's come to enjoy the change.

"I was born on April 4th so four has always been my number," Weber said. "You basically get whatever's left and Lexi Marton had four (when I got here), so I went with 16 and it's been good to me. I thought about changing back to four junior year, but I decided to stick to 16."

On the field, next up for the Nittany Lions are the Ohio State Buckeyes. The border rivals square off in Columbus on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Seniors Seize the Moment in Fourth Consecutive Win

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11396826.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State women's soccer team defeated Big Ten foe Indiana, 4-0, on Senior Day Sunday afternoon for its fourth straight victory. The win propelled the Nittany Lions to 10-2-2 on the year and 5-1-1 in Big Ten play.

The seniors led the way for the Blue and White on an emotional day that featured family, flowers, and a few tears, happy and sad. They wasted no time getting to work after the senior day festivities halted and the whistle blew.

In the sixth minute, Raquel Rodriguez netted her second goal of 2015 off a rebound from point blank range. A well-timed ball found sophomore Frannie Crouse in the box against the keeper, but Indiana's Sarah Stone was able to turn away the close range shot. Luckily, Rodriguez was the player on the pitch who followed the shot, and she converted with a wide open net.

"It's really important to score early because it opens up the scoreboard and gets us going," said Rodriguez. "We're not settled with just one or two, though. We always want to go for more and more."

Later in the half, Rodriguez found herself with another promising chance off a corner kick, but the senior's header slammed off the crossbar and bounced out of harm's way.

Penn State mustered up numerous chances the rest of the half but couldn't find the back of the net again until close before the halftime whistle. This time, it was fellow captain and senior Mallory Weber's turn. In the 41st minute, Nickolette Driesse received a ball near the box with plenty of room to run and eventually found Weber alone on the right side who fired a low shot to the bottom left corner to make it 2-0.

"It's still a competition with the forwards," Weber said. "I still have to show the coaches I can still play up top and finish my chances so it's always nice just to get on the board and help the team and keep the momentum."

"You can't replace those guys," said head coach Erica Walsh. "I know you say that every year but look at this senior class.  Straight across the board, all five of them. This is an unbelievable senior class."

Weber's goal marked her team leading fifth on the year and 35th of her illustrious career. She is now 10th all-time in Penn State scoring history. She also moved up to third in the Big Ten this season with 19 points in 2015.

It wasn't solely seniors who contributed to the score line, however. Sophomore Megan Schafer got in on the fun a minute into the second half with a jumping deflection off a corner kick that squeaked past the keeper for her second goal in as many games.

The Nittany Lions continued to pile it on late in the game courtesy of Elizabeth Ball. The primary starting center back got some work at forward for the last few minutes of the contest, and she made them count. In the 89th minute Ball received a pass in the middle of the field, beat the lone defender to her left and accurately placed a shot into the lower corner to seal the 4-0 win.

Penn State outshot Indiana 35-2 in the contest. Senior goalie Britt Eckerstrom wasn't called upon much, but she recorded her sixth shutout win this season and third in a row. The defense collectively has allowed a meager six shots in those games combined, while PSU has taken 45 and scored eight.

The Nittany Lions head to West Lafayette, Ind., on Thursday to battle the Purdue Boilermakers at 7 p.m. searching for their fifth straight victory.

Relentless Attack, Dominant Defense Fuel Lions in Shutout of Maryland

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11387678.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The No. 11 Penn State women's soccer team (9-2-2) turned in a dominant performance against the Maryland Terrapins on Thursday night. The final score line, however, could not be less reflective of what really happened on Jeffrey Field under the lights.

The Nittany Lions defeated the Terps, 1-0, for their second straight Big Ten shutout despite a stellar night from the opposing keeper Rachelle Beanlands. The contest could've easily gotten out of hand if not for her 11 saves.

While Beanlands had to deal with 11 PSU shots on goal, keeper Britt Eckerstrom had a relatively quiet night thanks to Penn State's stifling defense. Maryland totaled just one shot during the 90 minutes of action. Late in the second half, a U-M forward found some room and launched a hopeful shot from outside the box that sailed wide.

On the other side, the Nittany Lions took a season high 30 shots. Somehow, only one found the back of the net. The 29 shot differential is the highest for Penn State this season. It had the feel of a wide margin of victory, but every win counts the same.

"That's soccer," head coach Erica Walsh said. "They have enough dangerous pieces to put one in the back of the net and you lose that game so the halftime message was go chase it. You're going to have to go after this game and go get it. I don't think we took our foot off the gas that whole game."

After countless attacks, seemingly impossible saves, and a few post-kissing shots, the Blue and White finally broke through in the 77th minute. A cross from the right half found Mallory Weber all alone in the center of the box, but Beanlands sprinted out and slid to take out Weber in front of the net. Luckily, the ball squirted out and found Megan Schafer who finished beautifully to the top corner while the keeper could only watch from the ground.

"We knew going into halftime that the goal wasn't going to be pretty," said Schafer. "Anything can happen. Mal [Weber] almost had it so you never know what's going to happen so I was just there to back her up."

The goal marked her sixth on the season, which ties her for the team lead with Weber and Frannie Crouse. Penn State's offense continues to show its versatility and multitude of weapons.

As for its defense, there may not be a team in the country playing better than the back line. After a 3-0 shutout of Northwestern in which they only allowed three shots, the defense miraculously outdid their performance on Thursday night. The entire game seemed like it was being played solely on Maryland's half. Every time the Terps tried to move the ball up, they were quickly stopped and pushed back.

"Our possession was good," Walsh said. "Our flank play could be a little better, and I think we created a ton of chances but credit to the goalkeeper. I thought their game plan was spectacular and they stuck to it so credit to Maryland."

The biggest key to stopping Maryland is slowing down Alex Anthony in the middle. Her physical style of play challenges defenses, but Elizabeth Ball and the back line were up for the challenge.

"I kind of like it better like that because my physicality and their physicality really mesh well," Ball said. "When the game is being played like that I feel like I can come out with every tackle."

"She's a heck of a player," said Walsh. "She gave us everything we could handle back there and I thought we did a great job on her, but she's a very special player."

The Nittany Lions return home on Sunday to meet Indiana at Jeffery Field on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Elizabeth Ball's Steady Presence Fueling Lions' Defensive Prowess

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11385851.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - There's no substitute for dependability, but it's a trait that's hard to come by. Cal Ripken Jr's unbreakable record was dubbed unbreakable simply because it is. The wear and tear of a year-round sport puts even the strongest men and women in a cycle of fatigue and injury. Every once in a while, you have to sit one out.

Well, not Cal Ripken Jr., and certainly not Elizabeth Ball.

"E-Ball" has been a consistent force in the middle ever since her arrival to State College. In her freshman season, the center back recorded 23 regular season starts and logged over 1,800 minutes on the pitch. It's tough enough for a freshman just to get acclimated to the collegiate game, let alone become a model of dependability for the entire defense.

This season, she's been even better. The true sophomore leads the Nittany Lions with 1,093 minutes played. Ball has started every game so far at center back, and that trend doesn't look like it will change any time soon.

"She's so dependable," said head coach Erica Walsh. "You know you're going to get an honest effort out of her every day. I think her ups and downs of her freshman year are starting to smooth out. We're starting to see way more consistency out of her and I think our team believes in her. We're also starting to see more leadership out of her which is exactly what we need."

Her newfound leadership role is a recently acquainted piece to her puzzle. Ball possesses the most experience along the back line despite it being only her second year. Her fellow center back Kaleigh Riehl and right back Ellie Jean, both freshmen, have looked to Ball all year in pressure situations.

Ball has been an unbreakable wall in the back all year, but she's undoubtedly in her best form at this point in the season. Last week, she was awarded Team of the Week honors by TopDrawerSoccer after a dominating performance against Northwestern.

"It's awesome," Ball said. "It was a big honor and I'm really excited. We've been playing really good defense and I couldn't have done it without my back line and Britt [Eckerstrom]."

The Nittany Lions, led by Ball in the middle, allowed a quiet total of three shots to the No. 24 Wildcats in a convincing 3-0 victory last Sunday. The shutout marked the fifth time this season PSU has held their opponent scoreless.

"Elizabeth had a great game," said Walsh. "That's the best I've seen her in a Penn State jersey on Sunday. She was confident both on the defense and the attack and she's having fun. She definitely raises the level of our team when she plays that well. We've been talking a lot about blue collar and she's setting the example in that area."

Penn State's recent defensive success has lowered its average goals allowed to 0.75. Somehow, the defense is in fact improving as the year rolls on. This can be credited to the ever-growing chemistry along the back line. Their close ties and strong friendships off the field are contributing to their solid play on the field.

"Being good friends and being such a close family is awesome because we already know what we're going to do," Ball said. "If Kaleigh's going to play me the ball I already know what's coming. It's good to have that connection because it would be terrible if we hated each other, so I think it really helps."

It's clearly evident on the field how in-synch the back line has been of late, and it all starts with Ball. She's become a great communicator in the middle of the pitch, directing traffic and aiding Eckerstrom during opponents' attacks. With Ball feeling as comfortable as ever leading the defense, this back line's confidence is sky high.

"They're gaining more and more confidence with every game," said Walsh. "We always talk about 'defender nation' and coming together as a group and really taking pride in a shutout."

"We definitely have a lot of confidence, but we're also trying to stay humble," Ball said. "It's really important that we come out every game hard and don't get complacent."

Ball's consistency and steady play has brought the young defense to a new level. Trust is imperative on defense, and that's what Ball provides in one of the most crucial positions on the pitch. If she can stay healthy, scoring on the Nittany Lions will continue to be easier said than done.

Statistics Don't Tell the Story in Rodriguez's Senior Season

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11366384.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Statistics in the timeless sport of soccer can be misleading at times. Sure, a great goal scorer is going to put up points game in and game out, and defenders find their own way into the stat sheet with tackles, blocks, and the occasional assist.

Midfielders, however, are rarely on complete attack or defense mode. The middle of the pitch is a barren region where statistics go to die, but it may well be the most important area on the field.

While stats overshadow what happens in the trenches, Penn State has been extremely efficient winning the ball near midfield and pushing it up the pitch before the opposition can get comfortable in PSU's half. The single most important aspect of any match is keeping possession and limiting the opponents' control of the ball, and that's what the Nittany Lions have done so well this season.

At the center of it all is senior Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez.

The nickname "Rocky" didn't come about until her official visit to Penn State in 2012. Goalie Britt Eckerstrom wrote "Rocky" on her nametag, essentially Americanizing her title, and it stuck ever since.

Raquel Rodriquez Cedeno
, all the way from San Jose, Costa Rica, has been the rock in the middle for Penn State her entire career. Before Penn State, Rodriguez was influenced heavily by her father, Sivianni, who played professionally in Costa Rica.

"It definitely impacted me in such a strong way because he brought the sport to my life when I was four years old," said Rodriguez. "That's how we discovered I had a passion for it, and I started nice and early so the more I played it the more I loved it. I just had so much passion about it from the beginning."

Rodriguez followed in his footsteps and made her father proud by leading her country to its first ever FIFA Women's World Cup appearance in 2015. If that wasn't enough of an accomplishment, the amateur scored Costa Rica's first ever goal in the FIFA Women's World Cup against Spain in its first match.

In each of her first three years in Happy Valley, Rodriguez managed at least 17 points, including a career-high seven goals in 2014. In 2015, her role is much different. Instead of pushing the attack as much as possible, Rodriguez is helping more on defense and letting PSU's stud forwards do their jobs up top. She has tallied three assists but is still searching for her first goal this year.

"She does everything well," said associate head coach Ann Cook. "Unfortunately, her stats don't reflect it. In so many ways she's the heart of our defending. She's the heart as we change the point of attack, as we get the ball off of our backs and get it forward. She's in a lot of ways what makes us go."

Part of her role modification has to do with the young defense the Nittany Lions have showcased this year. Two freshmen and two sophomores round out the back line, so veteran help is always needed, and Rodriguez is always there.

Rodriguez was named a captain for the 2015 campaign before the season began, and there were no complaints about that choice. Her leadership and poise on the pitch makes her the perfect fit, and her international experience has very much prepared her for whatever the college game throws at her.

"She's the type of person that is a really quiet leader," Cook said. "She leads mostly by example and by small conversations, and those small conversations are incredibly inspirational to her teammates to give them the bump that they need. Her response to being captain has been exactly what we expected. She's been so steady and so good and so dependable and everything we could ask for."

In her final season for the Blue and White, Rodriguez has her mind set on one thing: a national championship. Penn State has captured an unrivaled 16 Big Ten Championships in its great history, but not once have the Nittany Lions held up the national championship trophy.

"Right now, a national championship is the priority of the team and for sure it's my priority now," Rodriguez said. "It would be something historical for women's soccer at Penn State and that's definitely something I dream of. I'm a senior now and I'm part of the captains so that's our responsibility to lead us there."

"Rocky" Rodriguez couldn't care less if she doesn't score even one goal this season. For her, the most important thing is her team's success. This newfound mindset may have altered her numbers, but the Nittany Lions look stronger than ever because of it.

Rodriguez's selflessness can spur Penn State to great things in 2015, but don't be surprised if she puts one in the net at the most crucial time when the season's on the line. That's just what she does.

Eckerstrom's Leadership Powering Stout Defensive Effort in 2015

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10409712.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - They say defense wins championships. This has been true since the dawn of athletics and holds true in every sport imaginable. If a team can't stop its opponents from scoring, there's simply no hope.

Head coach Erica Walsh's Nittany Lions have proved this point over and over, capturing seven Big Ten titles in her first eight seasons on the sideline. The emphasis in each of these seasons: defense, defense, and more defense.

Spectacularly, Walsh might have her best defensive assemblage this year, and it starts between the posts.

Redshirt senior Britt Eckerstrom has been the rock in net for the past three years. In her third year as the starter, Eckerstrom is looking better than ever.

She has already notched four shutouts in the first nine games of 2015, and she won't be stopping at that number. Last year, she totaled eight. This year, she's on pace for the same number halfway through the season.

"Britt Eckerstrom has really come into her own," said Walsh. "She is the most important part of our shutouts up to this point, and bringing our young back line together. She's a massive piece of the puzzle for us right now, and most importantly she's our leader."

Eckerstrom takes the capital C on her jersey very seriously. Considering the inexperience of PSU's defensive unit, her job as field general is just as important as her role as goal stopper. Eckerstrom is noticeably vocal from kickoff to the final whistle, managing the defensive shifts and letting her teammates know where the opposition is at all times.

"Britt's a great goalkeeper," said freshman Ellie Jean. "Her talk on the field is always reassuring, and we can always count on her to make huge saves."

The back line may be young, but there's plenty of talent. Two freshmen, Jean and Kaleigh Riehl, have started in every game so far in their careers. Elizabeth Ball and Brittany Basinger, both sophomores, are the only starting defenders with prior collegiate experience.

"These guys have been lights out this year," Eckerstrom said. "They're super organized and are connecting really well. We're finally coming together as a group. Those shutouts have a little bit to do with me, but mostly it's my back line."

"Undoubtedly Britt is the glue of the back line," said Walsh. "She has them believing in themselves. She has them believing in their ability to hold off the other team. She rallies the group when they've put a ball in the back of the net, and there's an incredible amount of faith in her and her ability from the team."

Collectively, the defensive unit has allowed a mere 0.78 goals per game this season, but Eckerstrom carries a 0.56 average when she's in net. She's in reach to set a career-best in that category if she can get that number under 0.51.

Penn State's most impressive showing took place on Sept. 11 in Palo Alto. Following a loss to West Virginia, the Nittany Lions blanked the second-ranked Stanford, 2-0, in what could be pinned as the turning point for PSU defensively.

Before the Stanford win, the Blue and White were surrendering 1.4 goals per game. The win propelled the Nittany Lions to two more shutouts in a row in what became a streak of 383 straight shutout minutes before they conceded a goal.

Eckerstrom and the back line are starting to gel at the perfect time. Big Ten competition is freshly underway, and every remaining game on the schedule carries more weight than the last. The emergence of Jean and Riehl has the team dreaming of big things.

"Everyone has the same goal right now, to win a national championship," Eckerstrom said. "We have to take it one game at a time. As captain, I have to be loud for my defense, but there's tons of other voices on the field that we need for each game."

One blemish regarding the back line is finishing games as strong as it starts them. This season, Penn State has given up five of their seven goals allowed in the second half. The Nittany Lions' opponents are outshooting PSU 57-55 after halftime, whereas Penn State is outshooting the opposition 62-33 in the first half.

If they can work out the kinks in the second frame, this is a defensive unit has the potential to be consistently among the best in the nation. With every conference foe gunning to take down the Big Ten favorites, their play will have to elevate in the home stretch. Eckerstrom and company are battle-tested, and they should be able to handle whatever the conference throws at them.

Eckerstrom Continues to Impress Despite Narrow Setback

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10485346.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The fourth-ranked Penn State women's soccer team suffered its first Big Ten loss of the 2015 season on Sunday afternoon to the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The 1-0 setback brings the Nittany Lions to 6-2-1 on the year.

Although the Blue and White were kept off the scoreboard, there was no shortage of chances in the contest. Penn State took 11 shots in the game and totaled 11 corner kicks, but it was unable to sneak the ball past Minnesota keeper Tarah Hobbs.

A few of the most promising chances in the game came from long shots outside the box that were denied by the crossbar. In the 40th minute, senior captain Raquel Rodriguez ripped a shot from 22 yards out that tried to dip into the far corner, but it clipped the top of the bar and sailed over the net.

Later in the game, Sophomore Frannie Crouse produced a similar strike in the 66th minute. Crouse dribbled past a defender, cleared space, and fired a shot from the same distance that beat the goalie but not the crossbar.

"It's frustrating but that's college soccer," said head coach Erica Walsh. "I give Minnesota all the credit in the world. They came in and battled. They outmuscled us and beat us to the ball too often. We didn't make our own luck today and they did."

Sometimes, especially in hard-fought conference games, luck alone can determine the outcome of the game. On Sunday, Penn State's simply ran out.

In the 81st minute, for instance, sophomore Emily Ogle sent a corner kick into the box that found Rodriguez at point blank range. The All-Conference midfielder attempted to guide the ball to the near post with the keeper nowhere in sight, but the shot hit a Gopher defender guarding the post and bounced wide.

"I think it's all about making your own luck," Walsh said. "They absolutely did today and we didn't. Sure, we could've put one in the back of the net, but at the end of the day that team just wanted it more than us."

The unsurprising bright spot for PSU came from in between their goal posts. Britt Eckerstrom has been on a tear lately, and even though Minnesota snuck one by her, the keeper played a marvelous game.

Eckerstrom finished with five stops in the contest, none more impressive than a kick save to keep the deficit at one in the 68th minute. Minnesota's Sydney Squires received a pass and found herself alone against Eckerstrom with plenty of room, but Eckerstrom timed her charge perfectly and denied Squires.

"With 22 minutes left in the game, that's a potential game-changing moment," said Walsh. "You look back at those moments, and if we put one in the back of the net she's the one that changed the game for us, but unfortunately it didn't happen."

"Every Big Ten team comes in, especially at our house, with a lot of desire to put us away," said Eckerstrom. "Sunday games are always a special challenge but we have to be up for it."

Eckerstrom pitched a shutout in each of the previous three games, one of which against No. 2 Stanford. The redshirt senior owns a 0.78 goals allowed per game average in 2015.

"Britt Eckerstrom is, as far as I'm concerned, the best goalkeeper in the country right now," Walsh said. "Her leadership's been fantastic and this team believes in her and I believe we can go really far with her as our captain and our leader back there."

The Nittany Lions look to rebound on Friday against the Nebraska in Lincoln.

Balance, Depth Fuel Lions in Dominant Big Ten Opener

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11330414.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State women's soccer team had found itself in a multitude of close games in the past few weeks. On Thursday night, that wasn't the case.

After a huge weekend on the west coast, the Nittany Lions kept the momentum going with a resounding 4-0 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers in their Big Ten opener.

Penn State (6-1-1) has now won three straight matches, including a monumental victory over the second-ranked Stanford Cardinal last Friday. Goalie Britt Eckerstrom and the defensive unit has held their opponents scoreless in each of those games.

"Everybody in the stadium looks at that scoreboard and sees four, and our team needs to look at it and see zero," head coach Erica Walsh said. "We've had a couple of shutouts in a row now against really good teams. To put four balls in the back of the net is fantastic, but to continue to shut these good teams out is probably even more important."

The young back line didn't just make their presence felt on the defensive side of the ball. Freshman Ellie Jean and redshirt sophomore Brittany Basinger were constantly attacking from their outside positions, which placed added pressure on a shaky Wisconsin defense.

In the 28th minute, Jean made a strong move from the right sideline to blow by two defenders and sent a low cross to the middle of the box. Senior captain Mallory Weber was right there for the one-time finish to the corner of the net to open the scoring for the Blue and White. Weber's fifth goal of the season gives her the team lead.

"We're pretty instinctive, so I knew she was going to be there," Jean said. "That's pretty much her spot. We've scored like that before so I know she's there and trust her to get there."

"I think a big part of our game is getting those guys into the attack," said Walsh. "When they're not able to do so, things fail a little bit like they did against West Virginia. I think both Bassinger and Ellie Jean were a big part of our attack tonight."

The match progressed quietly throughout the first half and into the second, but the Badgers began to show signs of fatigue as the time went on. Luckily for the Nittany Lions, their deep bench created a mismatch for the tired back line of Wisconsin.

In the 56th minute, freshman Charlotte Williams entered the game for Frannie Crouse and immediately made her presence felt. Three minutes after stepping between the lines, Williams did her best Ellie Jean impression and found Megan Schafer in the middle of the box for a goal in a near identical play.

Shortly after, Marissa Sheva was called to action from the bench and got to work right away. In the 75th
 minute, Sheva made a run to the left half of the box, received a beautiful through ball from Raquel Rodriguez in between three defenders, and finished near-post to increase the lead to 3-0. It was the freshman's first goal of her career.

Six minutes later, the Nittany Lions put the finishing touches on. Williams found herself wide open on the right half after a defensive miscue and notched her second assist of the game with a perfect, high-arching cross that Crouse headed past the keeper with ease.

"Charlotte Williams gave us a huge bump," Walsh said. "All these guys off the bench I thought were good tonight. I keep talking about being 26 strong and I think we really saw it tonight."

"Depending on what team we play, we play a different format," said Williams. "I think it doesn't make a huge difference if you're starting or coming off the bench. If you're coming off the bench you're trying to change the game and impact it."

A total of 20 Penn State players saw the field Thursday night. The bench amassed five shots and two assists on the night, both courtesy of Williams.

"In my nine years, this is the deepest we've been," said Walsh. "To be honest, as a coaching staff we're still trying to figure out how to use them all and that's a great problem to have. Different days, different players are more effective against different opponents so we have to be smart enough to figure out how to use them."

The Nittany Lions will be back at Jeffery Field Sunday for a Big Ten showdown with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Penn State defeated Minnesota 1-0 in Minneapolis last year.

Nittany Lions' Top Recruiting Classes Proving Their Worth

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11308736.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In head coach Erica Walsh's first eight seasons at Penn State, the Blue and White has reached the NCAA Tournament each year and secured the Big Ten regular season title in all but one.

With Walsh at the helm, the Nittany Lions are in the conversation to win it all every single year.

It's one thing to build a solid foundation of players and make a run at a championship every so often, but few have had the consistent success Walsh has displayed during her tenure at PSU. The single most important factor in maintaining a powerhouse year in and year out is recruiting, and Walsh has proven she's among the best in the business.

Of course, she has some help. Assistant coach Tim Wassell, who deals primarily with the goalies, heads the strong recruiting team. This will mark his sixth season with the Nittany Lions.

"Tim is as good as I've ever seen," Walsh said. "He's played a huge role in the success of our recruiting. Since he joined our staff you've seen the improvement in our recruiting classes. I will give him 100% credit for what he's done in that area."

"You can't get better coaches than our staff," said freshman Kaleigh Riehl. "That was a big factor in choosing to come here. When I came, the girls were very welcoming and obviously I had watched them play many times and it was just a great team and a great environment."

In such a competitive day and age in college soccer, it's absolutely imperative to snag top recruits each and every year. One weak class can hinder a program, so offseason work is becoming more and more vital to success during the season.

In each of the previous two years, Walsh and associate head coach Ann Cook and Wassell have reeled in the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the country, according to TopDrawerSoccer. This year's class boasts nine talented and fearless players pulled from all over the globe.

"I think the personality of our current players is what sells this place," said Walsh. "We're able to pull kids from all over the country and all over the world. We're competing against the best schools right now, so we can't take any days off."

Another key factor in college recruitment is whether or not a recruit's game translates to the college game. Number 2-ranked classes don't mean anything until the players lace up their boots and prove what they can do on the field. Part of this transition depends on how well the coaches and upperclassmen prepare younger players for a faster and more physical game, and part of it is finding players who fit the Penn State mold.

"With all things being equal, the character piece is the number one component that we value and emphasize in our recruiting," Walsh said. "We believe that Penn State is the best place in the country to play college soccer and we have consistently shown that we are able to attract the top players from around the world due to the environment and experience that we are able to offer our student-athletes. When you spend five minutes with our current student-athletes it is easy to see the quality of character that they represent  and we look forward to sustaining this standard of excellence."

Last year's class entered Happy Valley with a bang. Frannie Crouse led the team in goals (10) en route to her earning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a freshman, while Megan Shafer tallied an impressive 17 points and six goals. Emily Ogle, who has started in every game of her young career, was awarded Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2014.

The highly touted 2015 class has already shown its No. 2 ranking is not a fluke either. Freshmen Ellie Jean and Kaleigh Riehl have started in every game so far in 2015. Riehl's 468 minutes played is the highest mark on the roster. She's been on the field for all but two minutes this season.

Five Penn State freshmen have played in every contest so far: Jean, Riehl, Charlotte Williams, Marissa Sheva, and Alina Ortega-Jurado from Wetzlar, Germany. The young group has totaled four points in the early stages of 2015.

"The freshmen have been amazing," said Ogle. "The biggest thing is keeping their composure in big spots and in big games and I think they've done that really well so far. That's going to help us big time once the postseason starts."

With both No. 2 classes now playing beside each other, the roster is littered with young, hungry talent. Underclassmen have accounted for seven out of the team's 10 goals this season. They also are responsible for 17 of the squad's 28 points.

"I think it's a pretty tall order against the quality of opponents that we're playing against, but I think these guys have stepped up" Walsh said. "We've put them in environments where they can sink or swim, and there have been moments when we definitely sink. Credit to them, they lift themselves back up but it's not easy."

The young guns face their toughest test this Friday when they take on the second-ranked Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto.


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