Women’s Soccer In Line For Big Ten Title Despite Adversity
Coming off its loss against UCLA — its second in a row — Penn State women’s soccer opened the season 1-2-1. The Nittany Lions lost all of three games last season, but with the departure of its three captains and the decision for five likely starters to sit out to compete in the upcoming U-20 World Cup, it looked like this year could be much different for Penn State.
Following up the strides Penn State made in 2015 was going to be difficult. The team topped the regular season Big Ten standings, won the Big Ten conference tournament, and finished it all off with the program’s first national title where it didn’t even give up a goal throughout the entire NCAA Tournament. Of course trying to match some of that team’s achievements was going to be difficult.
Yet here we are going into the last game of the regular season, and Penn State has dropped just one result since its back-to-back losses against BYU and UCLA. The Nittany Lions are one win away from reclaiming at least a share of the regular season title they won last year.
“We knew we needed to work through a bit of things in order to get to this point,” Coach Erica Dambach said. “Players were going to need to step up and players have stepped up for this season. We’ve talked about that in the past with the likes of [Alina Ortega-Jurado], [Charlotte Williams], [Frannie Crouse], and [Amanda Dennis] in goal. Those pieces were critical.”
Starting up top with junior forward Frannie Crouse, she’s managed to get into the double-digits once again with 12 goals and counting this year. Missing goal-scoring machine turned deadly winger Mallory Weber, the Nittany Lions still had a steady performer to depend on to find the back of the net.
The lone senior, captain Nickolette Driesse, is another familiar name that’s been crucial to the success of the Nittany Lions through the regular season. Leading the team with six assists, Driesse has been a huge playmaker in the holding midfield role — previously occupied by the driving forces behind the 2015 National Title run Rocky Rodriguez and Emily Ogle.
So is the case on the back line with veteran defenders Brittany Basinger and Elizabeth Ball leading the charge. After shutting out eight-straight teams in the postseason on the way to winning the Big Ten and NCAA Championships, the two veterans were forced to incorporate a handful of new faces into one of the most feared defenses in the country.
“I would give [Ball and Basinger] a ton of credit in the success of the defense right now,” Dambach said. “They’re vocal. They keep a high standard. Certainly they’ve been a huge part in bringing the young group along.”
Outside of the names listed above, many key faces in this Penn State team were a mystery prior to the season.
At goalkeeper, Penn State had three freshmen on its roster to begin the season. Following the historic career of Britt Eckerstrom, it was expected Rose Chandler would take over. However, she was called up to the United States U-20 National Team to play in the upcoming World Cup.
That left the reigns to the freshman that stood out above the rest, Amanda Dennis.
Dennis started out her Penn State career with a few shaky games, but has come into her own since the opening games. Dambach awarded her for stepping up to the role the moment she got on campus and she’s paid the coach back with spectacular play in the later weeks of the season, which included a Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor.
Then on the back line, two internationals have played a prominent role alongside Basinger and Ball.
English freshman Grace Fisk and German sophomore Alina Ortega-Jurado have earned the respect of their coach this season, starting nearly every game. Both had their challenges, with Fisk joining the team with less than three weeks before the season and Ortega-Jurado switching positions from her usual midfield role, but each has had different shinning moments throughout the Big Ten season.
With a lot of shifting going on in the Nittany Lions’ lineup, the door opened up for Charlotte Williams to start more frequently as an attacking midfielder. The sophomore, who Dambach says fits the true No. 10 attacking midfield role, has scored or assisted on nearly a fourth of Penn State’s goals this season.
“You never know what’s going to come out of her next,” Dambach said. “She’s magic on the ball.”
As the Nittany Lions head toward the postseason, they still have some work to do to continue to succeed by their standards.
“Now that we’ve gotten ourselves to this point, we’ve got to see our big players step up,” Dambach said. “We’ve got to see Megan Schafer put one in the back of the net. This is what big moments are all about, right? You’ve got to play. You’ve got to step up and play.”
Penn State will clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season title with a win tomorrow against Ohio State at Jeffrey Field. To win the crown outright and host every one of its matches in the Big Ten Tournament, it needs Northwestern and Minnesota to either tie or lose tomorrow in its games against Illinois and Maryland, respectively.