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‘Emotions Of The Game’ Lead Penn State Men’s Soccer To First NCAA Tournament Win Since 2014

Entering Sunday’s match against UMass, Penn State men’s soccer hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in seven years.

Despite the lack of success at the highest level, it was maturity that propelled Jeff Cook’s team into the Sweet Sixteen with a commanding 4-1 win over the Minutemen. The scoreline didn’t capture the full story of the must-win game, as UMass made things very difficult until Tyger Evans finally smashed home the fourth goal with eight minutes to play.

“I think that UMass got a lot of energy from their goal, and even when they were getting a corner kick or a free kick [in the second half], it gave them energy and put us on the back foot,” Cook said after the win.

The Nittany Lions had a dream first half, leading 3-0 in the locker room after a dominant start. However, UMass must have woke up an hour late, because the Atlantic 10 squad blitzed Penn State to begin the second period.

Penn State had a costly breakdown in the 53rd minute that led to an own goal, giving UMass all the momentum. And at just a two-goal advantage, the Nittany Lions were far from comfortable.

The team needed to get its emotions under control, and that’s where Cook stepped in.

“We talked to a lot of guys when they came off, Seth Kuhn in particular. We said, ‘Look, if you told me before the game that we were 20 minutes to go, 3-1 ahead in the NCAA Tournament, I’d take that all day any day,'” Cook said. “From there, calming down and focusing on what we do well helped a lot.”

Cook pulled Kuhn in the 56th minute before putting his midfield maestro back on the pitch just eight minutes later. His positive perspective was clear for the rest of the match, as he kept the team from boiling over when things began to get chippy.

Kuhn, along with other midfielders such as Callum Pritchatt, Pierre Reedy, Keegan Ness, and Andrew Privett, helped control the pace of the game and see their team into the next round. As time dwindled, UMass got more and more flustered, but the Nittany Lions didn’t bite.

“What we focus on is making sure that when a UMass player’s season is going to end, and I say that very respectfully, [he will] do anything to avoid that [from] happening,” Cook said. “That includes some very robust challenges, competing to the very end. We just said to our guys, ‘if their season is going to end, don’t let them end yours too with a red card or a second yellow, and hurt the team that way.

“We really focused on the emotions of the game, as opposed to the tactics.”

Penn State’s game management was the five-star performance one would expect to see from Bayern Munich — the team spent time at the corner flag via Pritchatt, sprung counter-attacks when they saw weaknesses, and, most importantly, didn’t get into the referee’s book when UMass players lashed out at goalkeeper Kris Shakes.

Of course, the team couldn’t have gotten to the point of game management without already accumulating a lead.

There were a lot of impressive pieces to the puzzle, but none more than Kuhn and freshman attacker Peter Mangione, who bagged three assists. The two players linked up many times, including on Kuhn’s deftly taken goal in the first half. But it was the “dirty work” that ensured the team’s advancement.

“Seth was brilliant in the midfield today,” Mangione said. “We talked to each other before the game, and we knew, especially his position, he had to do a lot of dirty work. He had to work super hard, harder than them.”

“Their advantages were going to come from working harder than us,” Mangione continued. “We were saying to each other if we work harder than them, we take that advantage away, and we may have a chance. [Kuhn and other midfielders] did a great job of that.”

After a tense beginning to the second half, the Nittany Lions should really feel as if they accomplished something.

While it was tense from minute 45 until roughly 15 to play, UMass’s desperation was telling, and Penn State wound up closing out the game with a significant margin of victory.

On the same day, No. 1 Clemson needed a questionable penalty kick call to squeeze past American, No. 4 Stanford needed 91 minutes to finally score on former Penn State coach Bob Warming’s Omaha, while No. 3 Indiana needed penalty kicks to beat St. Francis Brooklyn.

The raw statistics, coupled with the maturity to not let a bad 15-minute stretch get the best of the team, are promising down the line as the opposition gets tougher.

“Overall, you have to be thrilled to win a game in the NCAA Tournament 4-1. We got contributions from almost the entire squad, so that’s really great to give them some real NCAA experience,” Cook said. “The thing that will serve us well going forward is playing under the pressure of a knockout format. Every game matters, but this is a different kind of pressure.”

The next game will be just that. Penn State will travel an hour east to Cary, North Carolina, to face defending national champions No. 8 Georgetown on Thursday. If the Nittany Lions can get a win, the team will be just one game away from its second-ever College Cup appearance.

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About the Author

Otis Lyons

Otis is a sophomore majoring in print journalism and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He lives just north of San Francisco, and is a diehard San Jose Earthquakes fan. Feel free to send over your soccer hot takes to his twitter @otisnlyons1 and instagram @otislyons

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