UNIVERSITY PARK — Talk about incentive — the Penn State women’s soccer team has plenty of it this season.
The Nittany Lions rolled to another Big Ten title, had the nation’s top offense, overcame injury after injury and ran all the way to the national championship match only to be denied the crown.
“Last season brought a big light to our program in terms of positivity,” senior forward Maya Hayes said. “But it also gave us something to get back to — a goal.”
“What better place to start from than getting to a national championship?” junior midfielder Emily Hurd asked. “We didn’t get the result we wanted, but that made us so hungry for the upcoming season and knowing we have the talent, the commitment and the dedication to get to that point, it’s about putting the pieces together and winning that last game.”
The trek back to the finals begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Jeffrey Field when the No 4 Nittany Lions host the Penn State Invitational as they battle West Virginia.
With eight returning starters, more depth and better health, there is not reason not to think another run to the finals is possible.
It took a while to erase the sting of losing 4-1 to North Carolina in the season’s final match, but eventually the hurt became something more useful.
“When we step out on these fields for practice, it’s in the back of our heads,” Hayes said. “We go at it every single day at practice because we know we don’t want to just get to that last game, we want to win that last game this year.”
Hayes, a returning first-team All-American who is already fifth on Penn State’s all-time goal-scoring list with 54, will be one of the key pieces this season. She played an abbreviated 2012 season after missing the first few weeks earning a gold medal with the U.S. under-20 national team, but still managed 16 goals and six assists. In 2011, she led the nation with 31 goals and 70 points.
But she has plenty of help from a team that scored 2.8 goals a game last season to lead Division I.
Aside from leading scorer Christine Nairn, the team’s “quarterback” last season as a central midfielder, and midfielder Maddy Evans, nearly all of the offensive threats are back. That list includes sophomore midfielder Mallory Weber (13 goals), forward Tani Costa (6 goals, 6 assists), forward-midfielder Taylor Schram (5 goals), midfielder Raquel Rodriguez (4 goals, 10 assists) and Hurd (2 goals, 8 assists).
“It’s a new season, but standards … and combinations of players — they don’t change,” Hayes said. “That’s all we’re going to harp on this season and what we will look forward to doing out on the field and bringing to every match.”
Rodriguez, who has loads of international experience, will be taking over the central midfielder duties.
While so many are back from big seasons, there are also some players head coach Erica Walsh is just happy to see back on the field instead of in the training room.
The Nittany Lions overcame a slew of injuries, especially among defensive backs that forced a number of team members to play unfamiliar positions and the Nittany Lions to play different formations.
The rash of injuries did have some unintended — but helpful — consequences for those who were on the field most of the season, however.
“I definitely think it left them more open minded,” Walsh said. “Some of these players, they grew up in the same system, their clubs played the same system every year and they consider themselves in a certain pattern … and it really opened their minds. For a lot of these guys, they want to play professionally some day and you never know (where they would play).”
Having thinner ranks by the end, and those on the field having to cover more gaps because of formation changes, finally caught up to them against the Tar Heels – but that also produced some incentives.
“We didn’t really have the depth we needed to compete against a North Carolina,” Hurd said. “This year we put a lot of focus on being fit and being able to play 90 minutes, all game, all season long so we can be strong as a starting lineup, but also have a depth-full roster. That was a main emphasis put on in the spring and summer, to get fit so your body can stay healthy for an entire season.”
In addition to Nairn and Evans, the other lost starter also played a major role — goalkeeper Erin McNulty. Stepping into those shoes is Britt Eckerstrom, who won four games, played in 11 and earned a shutout of Ohio State last season after a redshirt year.
“She was ready last year,” Walsh said. “McNulty just had a terrific season. Britt’s been waiting two years for this opportunity.”
The Nittany Lions have been waiting since December to get back on the field and exceed the standards set in 2012, including gunning for a 16th consecutive Big Ten title and a fifth trip to the College Cup.
“It motivated them for the past nine months,” Walsh said. “The best purpose it has served so far was that it was a renewed excitement and purpose in the offseason to train and get better.”