The Penn State men’s soccer team is on one serious road trip right now, having already logged several thousand miles of air travel and spent more than a week away from State College.
And it’s all so the Nittany Lions can come back to Pennsylvania.
The latest leg of the NCAA tournament has Penn State (13-5-2) in New Mexico for a third-round match against the seventh-seeded Lobos (12-5-2) at 7 p.m. Sunday.
“Playing in December is always a goal,” said coach Bob Warming, whose team is among the final 16 remaining for the first time since 2010. “Playing in December is a good thing.”
The winner faces either Stanford or second-seeded Washington in the national quarterfinals next weekend. It should be no surprise the Nittany Lions are rooting to meet the Cardinal — which would mean a game at Jeffrey Field instead of a trip to Seattle.
No matter what they will fly home Monday.
“We’re a little road-weary, to be honest,” Warming said. “It’s a long time to be away.”
The Nittany Lions won their opening-round match over Long Island Brooklyn, then immediately left for the airport for a second-round match at California Santa Barbara.
After beating the Gauchos, Penn State remained in southern California most of the week instead of dealing with the hassle of two cross-country flights over the holiday week when the players did not have any classes.
Thanksgiving was spent near the Los Angeles Airport for an early dinner before the flight to Albuquerque.
“There are very few people on the planet I want to be around 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Warming said. “These guys encompass a lot of them. They have been so incredible on this trip.”
Despite being away from campus, home and family for the holiday, Warming thought his team handled the unusual circumstances well.
“Their ability to switch from having fun, laughing, going crazy with just pulling pranks on each other and telling jokes,” Warming said, “to make that switch immediately into, ‘Let’s win a game’ is incredible.”
Warming is counting on another stout effort from his defense, which has frustrated opponents in the postseason.
Goalie Andrew Wolverton has eight shutouts this year, and overall they have surrendered just 16 goals in 20 games. The last three games have all been shutouts, with the two NCAA matches and a 0-0 contest against Indiana.
Overall, Wolverton is riding a streak of 290 shutout minutes, and while he gets the credit for the shutouts, there have been few shots to even test him from the opposition. The Hoosiers managed just one shot in that double-overtime Big Ten meeting.
“This group has been incredible,” Warming said. “They’re focused, they work hard and they really help each other out, They’ve just been terrific. If we can get a goal or two with our attack, we’re going to win the game.”
A win would leave the Nittany Lions a step away from the College Cup — set for PPL Park in Chester, just south of Philadelphia.
“That’s really short travel,” Warming said. “Going from State College to Philly is the travel we like.”