SAN DIEGO — Christine Nairn looked toward the heavens for relief, any way to keep emotion at bay.
Penn States leader tried to process a heartbreaking 4-1 loss to North Carolina objectively, but her effort was made in vain.
Nothing could stop the swelling tide.
The seniors sadness was so raw, her passion for the program so deep that she mourned the loss of a national title with tears.
Nairns reaction expressed a point shared by the entire roster. It hurt to fall short after coming so far.
Even though my career is over as a Penn State athlete, Nairn said, it... um. Itll just...
Thats when the senior put a hand on coach Erica Walshs shoulder and tapped out.
I think Christines emotions stem from how far shes come in her four years, Walsh said. Christine can cry all she wants after the effort she has put out all season long, all year long, throughout the course of an outstanding Penn State career. Its okay to be sad at times like these.
The team you see in front of you here is a family. Thats why the result is so hard for us to process. Weve reached the end and its not the finale we worked and hoped for. Now weve got to start a new chapter.
Nairn wont be part of it, but her legacy will live on. The central midfielder raised the bar for Penn State soccer, demanding accountability and effort from a team she led so well for so long.
The College Cup final will now be an expectation, not a pipe dream. The Nittany Lions are now respected among the nations elite, and deservedly so after an excellent postseason.
They battled, winning one tough game after another. They beat Michigan in third-round shootout. They squeaked by Duke in the quarterfinals and eclipsed Florida State in an overtime, semifinal thriller.
In Sundays final at the University of San Diegos Torero Stadium, Penn State simply ran out of gas.
Waves of North Carolina reserves crashed on the Nittany Lions, and depth eventually drove them under. North Carolinas 15-player rotation (in total, the Tar Heels played 21) wore down Penn States talented core during its second match in three days.
In the second half, the levies broke.
North Carolina scored three unanswered goals in that period, including a back-breaker by Hannah Gardner in the 46th minute on a corner kick that put the Tar Heels ahead for good. It snapped a 1-1 tie from an evenly-played first half and tilted control toward the Tar Heels.
The story of this game can be told through the timing of these goals, Walsh said. When youve got the momentum, when the half is starting you have all these things in front of you and all of a sudden you have a ball in the back of the net, youre constantly searching for answers. Thats what Carolina did to us at that point. They had us searching for the next answer. Every time we tried something, Carolina came right back with something else. I think Carolina was the better team. The scoreline indicates how the game went, and the credit goes to them today.
The Tar Heels, who outshot the Nittany Lions 24-12 for the game, started hot, with a goal from Kealia Ohai in the second minute.
Taylor Schram answered with a beautiful strike in the 18th, made possible by Nairns perfectly paced through ball.
The game got away in the second half, with goals from Satara Murray and Ranee Premji, but scoring disparity isnt what bothers Penn State most.
The finality of this loss is particularly troubling, providing an unwanted end with no shot at redemption.
Despite such disappointment, Walsh tried to give the loss greater perspective.
What I said to the team after the match is how proud I am of the work that theyve put in this season and the leadership presented by our senior class, she said. I told them how much Ive learned from them this year and how much their legacy means to this program and this university. Christine and her fellow seniors set a whole new standard for Penn State womens soccer.