The Penn State women’s soccer team is aiming high, and there is no reason not to be optimistic.
The Nittany Lions are a legitimate top-10 program, have a couple of the nation’s best players, return a ton of talent and experience from last fall and have talent and depth from front to back on the field.
“We’re finally coming into our own,” said head coach Erica Walsh, whose No. 9 Nittany Lions open the season tonight at No. 7 Virginia. “We’ve got a lot of veteran players with a ton of experience under their belts. That’s going to be the most important thing — our best players are our most experienced players this year for the first time in a while.”
The team has a tough stretch to open the season, not only with the Cavaliers, and a home opener Sunday against St. John’s, but next Friday they host No. 1 and defending national champion Stanford.
The optimism begins at the front of the formation with junior forward Maya Hayes, who merely led the nation in goals and points last season and was a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, given annually to the nation’s top player.
The All-American in 2011, and preseason All-American this year, netted 31 goals and added eight assists last season.
However, it is unlikely he will match those scoring feats this year since Hayes will not be joining the lineup until mid-September. Hayes and midfielder Taylor Schram are with the U.S. under-20 national team getting ready for the FIFA World Cup in Japan, which begins Sunday. It means the duo will not be in a Penn State uniform until — if the U.S. goes all the way to the finals — Sept. 6 for the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin.
“It’s going to give some of the young kids an opportunity to play a lot of minutes early on,” Walsh said. “By October, November when we’re putting the pieces together, I think we’ll have a lot of good choices to make.”
While Hayes certainly got a lot of attention for her scoring, the Nittany Lions also outscored their opponents 70-24 last season, so there is plenty of other firepower to pick up the slack. Leading the offense in her absence will be Tani Costa, who was the team’s scoring leader in 2010, along with Emily Hurd, Bri Garcia, Maddy Evans and Christine Nairn, who was a member of both the 2008 and 2010 U.S. U-20 teams.
“Four years ago that would have caused an enormous amount of concern because we were fairly limited in our options in the attack,” said Walsh, in her sixth year leading Penn State. “We’ve just got a lot more options than we’ve had in the past.”
They also will not be the only team missing key pieces tonight. The Cavaliers will be without Morgan Brian, an 11-goal scorer in 2011, as well as head coach Steve Swanson, who is leading the U-20 team.
Diversifying the offense will be a major product of the early stretch of the season without the pair, and the only question will be how the substitution and time rotations will be affected when the women return. Walsh said she and her staff will cross that bridge when they get there in September, but is looking forward to the benefit the roster as a whole will receive.
“Fans want to see teams score goals, and I think we’re going to score goals this year,” she said. “I’m excited about our variety in the attack.”
In a 3-1 preseason win over Villanova last Saturday, Garcia and freshmen freshman Raquel Rodriguez Cedeno and Mallory Webber scored the goals.
Nairn will be one of the key cogs throughout the season. The preseason All- American senior midfielder had three goals and a Big Ten-leading 13 assists last year and much of the offense runs through her feet and brain.
“She’s really come into her own as a leader,” Walsh said. “She’s leading by example. Her work rate is as good as it’s ever been. It’s exceptional right now. I think this is a player that’s playing the best soccer she’s ever played in a Penn State jersey.”
Hurd, Garcia, Evans, freshman Corey Persson and Cedeno, a native of Costa Rica, are among those who will join Nairn in the midfield. Freshman State College product Megan Ritchey is also among the team’s midfielders.
The defense is anchored for a second season by sixth-year senior Erin McNulty. McNulty, who was Florida State’s winningest goalkeeper before she transferred last year, got an additional year of eligibility because she also played in the World Cup with the Canadian national team, also missing a medical redshirt year.
The defense in front of McNulty also looks solid, anchored by senior Lexi Marton along with experienced junior Bri Hovington and sophomore Emily Church.
“I think we’re as athletic as can be,” Walsh said of her backs. “I think we have good experience in that back line as well. We’re probably six starters deep in that back line. It’s a good problem to have. We have to find the right combination of players for a particular opponent.”
Needless to say, the Nittany Lions are eager to get the season started.
“Our goal is the first week of November we’re a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament,” Walsh said, “and we’re going to keep that in perspective as we go.”
Gordon Brunskill can be reached at 231-4608.