For Women’s Soccer, the Road to a National Title First Goes Through West Lafayette
It was two years ago that the Penn State women’s soccer team lost 3-1 to North Carolina in the National Championship game. It’s obvious that team’s only goal has been to get back there ever since.
On Sept. 5 in Durham, the Tar Heels again beat Penn State, this time in a 1-0 double overtime thriller in the Duke Nike Classic. The Nittany Lions’ Britt Eckerstrom had ten saves, but Penn State could not prevail. Since that defeat in North Carolina, however, the Nittany Lions have been the hottest team in the country.
A 1-0 defeat to a resilient Rutgers team that was content to park the bus after a 28th minute goal was the only loss the Lions suffered the rest of the season. Having the Coach, Midfielder, Defender and Freshman of the Year all on one team, not to mention an additional four all-Big Ten players on one roster, means Penn State is one of the deepest teams in the country. With the streak that Penn State is on, a fluke loss in the Women’s College Cup like last year’s against a relatively average Wake Forest team will not happen again. It should take a team of incredible quality to stop the Nittany Lions this year.
Of course, the road to that tournament starts with another: The Big Ten Tournament. Hosted by Purdue, the top-seeded Nittany Lions will take on Northwestern today at 1:30 p.m. This, of course, is the same Northwestern team that the Nittany Lions absolutely thrashed 4-1 at Jeffrey Field, allowing only one shot on goal and having four different scorers. Penn State should be able to win this handily against a Wildcats squad that barely even made the tournament. With how strong the defense has looked, a 4-0 win certainly is not out of the question.
Who Penn State plays next is, at the time of this writing, to be determined. Iowa is taking on Rutgers at 10:30AM. Penn State clinched the Big Ten against Iowa, who then fell to lowly Nebraska. Though the Hawkeyes certainly would give Penn State a game, our women are ready to scorch the earth wherever they go, and with the single-game elimination tournament season upon us, another hard-fought 2-1 win in the semifinals seems about right.
The other potential opponent at 11 a.m. Friday, though, is Rutgers, who have a little bit of Lion Kryptonite in them. For a team that has only been in the Big Ten for a few months, Rutgers’ other sports teams have made themselves very easy to hate. The women’s soccer team, however, plays an attractive brand of football and couples it with a defense that gave up just four goals in its first fourteen games. The Scarlet Knights also handed the Nittany Lions their only conference defeat. While that could spell danger for Dear Old State, Rutgers did as Rutgers does, and limped in to the postseason. It lost three of its last four, including consecutive defeats to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Minnesota — teams Penn State defeated by a combined score of 7-1. The Knights rebounded against Ohio State, but their flaws were evident: they could not top a strong defensive unit and put the ball in the net. With arguably the best defense in the country, Penn State should be able to hold on this time. No more flukes, the Lions take a 1-0 victory from the Scarlet Knights if the two teams square off.
From there, the picture is obviously murkier, but the smart money is on No. 2 seed Wisconsin or No. 3 seed Michigan making it to the Big Ten Championship Game this Sunday at 3:00 p.m. The benefit of winning the conference is that those two have to battle each other before they get anywhere near Penn State, and with the strength of both sides, that could be a war. Fully expect whoever comes out of it to be ready to avenge its loss to the Lions. Penn State beat both of these teams away in games that solidified them as legitimate contenders. Megan Schafer scored the winner against Michigan 1-0 match in Ann Arbor, and Penn State dominated the Badgers 2-0 in Madison thanks to excellent goals from Emily Ogle and Salina Williford. If either opponent presses, the Lions will take advantage, but this could easily require overtime. With a lineup that includes Raquel Rodriguez, Emily Ogle, and Whitney Church, it would be hard to bet against the Lions if they face off with either team.
Lao Tzu said that that journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The trip from State College to Boca for the National Championship is not much longer than that.
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