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The Pillars: Ellie Jean, Kaleigh Riehl, And An Unforgettable Era Of Penn State Women’s Soccer

Penn State women’s soccer defender Ellie Jean looks back on the most important day in program history with a sigh, as if it’s simultaneously still hard to believe that it happened, and that it happened five years ago this December.

“All the time, I think about it,” she said, standing in the early darkness of Penn State’s soccer training complex as her teammates laugh and head to the locker rooms behind her. “We were really thankful that it happened our freshman year.”

When Penn State women’s soccer’s season ends, either at the end of the long road to an NCAA national championship or somewhere along the way, so too will one of the most important eras in the history of the program.

Despite the talent and accolades of Penn State’s six-player senior class, Riehl and Jean stand out as being the only current members of the team to have played in and won a national championship final.

Both played on that bright day in North Carolina in 2015, when Rocky Rodriguez’s lone goal sealed a national championship, the first in program history, against Duke. They were true freshmen. Riehl started the match, and Jean subbed in on the wing. Riehl started all 27 matches that season and scored one goal, while Jean started 21 and recorded six assists. They also secured Big Ten Tournament and regular season titles that season

Redshirt senior Kristen Schnurr, who scored eight goals for the Nittany Lions in a breakout season last year, was also on the team as a freshman, but redshirted that season. She’s missed this campaign due to injury, but remains an important presence for her teammates.

Fast forward three seasons and a redshirt year for both Riehl and Jean, and they are indisputable Penn State women’s soccer legends. They’ve won two Big Ten Tournament titles and one regular season title since 2017. Riehl, a 2018 All-American, became the Division I leader in minutes played by an outfield player when she crossed the 8,524 mark against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament final. Both are regulars in United States Women’s National Team camps, and have won a slew of all-conference recognitions over the course of their distinguished careers.

“Those two are really special. They are what Penn State soccer is all about, in every area. They’re going to go on and have great careers and I just feel really fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to work with both of them,” head coach Erica Dambach said haltingly. “They give me the best job in the country, and they are a huge part of why I love this program, coming out and coaching players like Kal, and El.”

When Riehl and Jean’s time in Happy Valley comes to an end — Penn State’s Friday evening match against Arizona could be the pair’s last collegiate game — their team will lose more than an exceptional half of a reliable and solid backline. It will say goodbye to two of the players who embody the program best — true champions that know what it takes to play at the highest level from August to December and lift the sport’s most coveted prize.

Penn State women’s soccer fans and anyone who has spent time around the team know that the program has a special, irresistible personality that like any good team can be noticed, but never fully understood, by outsiders. Dambach guides her team with a charisma that seems to walk the line between stern and caring. Its players express themselves on the field or cheer their teammates on, loudly, from the benches. They play and train with joy. And it’s all held together by leaders like the cool, elegant Riehl and explosive, tough Jean.

Penn State’s place as a perennial soccer power didn’t begin with the national championship or even Dambach’s arrival 13 seasons ago. The program has played at a high level since before Ali Krieger whipped crosses to her teammates on Jeffrey Field. But 2015 marked its entrance into the exclusive, 11-member group of national title winners only 21 years after it was founded.

Part of this success can be attributed to the team’s three-pillar philosophy that Dambach implemented after her 2006 arrival: attitude of a champion, blue collar, and united family.

“Our foundation is those pillars,” Riehl said. “We really live by those and we pride ourselves in that.”

Each of these concepts applies to the way Riehl and Jean play and manage the game. But as they approach their final match as Penn State players, it’s the third pillar that seems most applicable to their lifetime status as Nittany Lions as they pass the team on to a new and capable generation and move on to their next challenge.

They’ve already shaped Caitlin Haislip, a sophomore center back who will be the only remaining member of this campaign’s starting backline to return next season. She’s paired with Riehl and Jean at the back, but when they graduate alongside goalkeeper Amanda Dennis and fullback Laura Suero — both talented program veterans — she’ll be the only starting defender remaining on the roster.

“I learn from them every single day in training, and from the beginning, since the day I stepped into Happy Valley they’ve lead me, and helped me on and off the field,” Haislip said.

“It’s gonna be tough not having them next to me at some point next year, but I’m gonna try to enjoy the time we do have left together.”

Riehl and Jean making their last NCAA run with a young and capable team that has the talent, and more importantly, the grit to make an upset run to the final. This season has been defined by memorable moments — conceding against Michigan in the Big Ten title match, scoring a first-half goal against Stanford in August, grinding out a draw in West Virginia — that display the team and program’s character and philosophy.

Ultimately, what Jean and Riehl offer their teammates is confidence that winning it all is not only possible, but worth it. They know that the best can happen, that the story that is a season can end with perfection, that getting to the top is everything and more and worth the endless hours of work and strain. They know because they’ve been there.

“We just try to come out and bring that standard every time to pass down to the next girls so that they can have the same opportunity,” Jean said as the training field began to quiet behind her.

“Know that the sacrifice that you put in is so worth it.”

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About the Author

Jim Davidson

Jim is a junior English and history major and the features editor for Onward State. He, like most of the Penn State undergraduate population, is from 'just outside Philadelphia,' and grew up in Spring City, Pennsylvania. He covers a variety of Penn State topics, but spends nine months of every year waiting for the start of soccer season. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @messijim.

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