SAN DIEGO — An overtime victory over Florida State secured Penn State’s first date with the College Cup final. It doubled as Erica Walsh’s 100th win as Nittany Lions head coach.
Both are milestones of the highest order, signs of a program well built. It was constructed by a woman that commands respect and instills mental toughness above all else.
Her philosophy doesn’t need spelling out. It’s clear in Penn State’s play. The Nittany Lions are an extension of Walsh’s personality, equal parts fun-loving and businesslike.
It’s proven to be a winning combination that has Penn State poised to play North Carolina today for a shot at the national title.
“They do an excellent job balancing the need to have fun and get down to business,” senior midfielder Maddy Evans said. “But the most important lesson we’ve learned is to enjoy every single moment. We’ve done that this season, and it shows in how we play.
“As individuals, we value being a Penn State athlete. We value everything said by Coach Walsh and her staff. We value the opportunity to play together as a team and as a family. I believe in what Coach has said. I don’t regret a single moment I’ve spent in this program.”
The cupboard was full when Walsh took control in 2007. Penn State was the Big Ten’s dominant team, and remains so to this day. It was a good program, but Walsh has it on the cusp of greatness.
Plain and simple: One more win and the College Cup is theirs.
It would complete a steady ascent through ranks, where the Nittany Lions have advanced farther in the postseason each year.
Walsh got here by beating her mentor in Friday’s semifinal. Her coaching philosophy was developed by her college coach at William & Mary and seasoned by Seminoles coach Mark Krikorian. She also worked as a women’s national team assistant under Pia Sundhage.
She took those lessons and applied them effectively. It’s earned respect from players and colleagues alike.
“She has a wonderful soccer pedigree, but what I really like about Erica is that is always exploring ways to be a better coach,” said North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance, arguably the best college coach of all time. “You can see it in the way her teams have evolved over time. She’s an extraordinary recruiter, and she’s a superb game manager. Erica is one of the top young coaches in America, and she has an incredibly bright future in the game.”
As do the Nittany Lions under her tutelage. Walsh has stocked her roster with smart, resilient players that remain calm under pressure. Walsh has orchestrated excellence with a combination of talent, conviction and spirit, attributes she considers vital to a winning program.
“I came to Penn State to win a national championship and do it the right way,” Walsh said. “I knew I would have the support needed to do so. I’m inspired the student-athletes that compete for their school. As far as I’m concerned, there is no better place in the world to coach college soccer.”
Penn State would be the sport’s epicenter with one more win. It would also cement her place among college coaching’s elite, and make her just the second female coach to win an NCAA title.
Walsh doesn’t care about that. She cares about her players staying focused and showing the resolve necessary to beat a juggernaut. Walsh believes mental toughness will carry Penn State through, as it has all season.
“I can see mental toughness in all aspects of our program,” Walsh said. “I feel as if it’s almost tangible at times and I feel as if I grow strength from my players. So much of their strength is recognized in the recruiting process and fostered during their time here. It’s not all about wins and losses. It’s about how they deal with adversity. We have one more challenge ahead. I hope we make the most of it.”
Walsh came up with a creative way to inspire down the final stretch. She showed a highlight video of famous alumni wishing them well while lighting the road to success. But this group has a chance to do something alumni never did, a point not lost on Walsh or her players.
“I can believe that we’re here because we’ve earned it,” Evans said. “We’ve given so much, and now we have to go out tomorrow and seal the deal. The stage was set by others, but we’ve raised the standard to yet another level. It’s time for us to pay it forward and inspire the next generation.”