There were a few questions and unknowns before the Penn State women’s soccer team kicked off its season in August, but the Nittany Lions felt there was one certainty: They had a good defense.
After a few bumps in the road, it appears they were right.
Ready to be tested by the nation’s highest-scoring team, No. 3-seeded Penn State (15-4-4) faces No. 1 Stanford (21-1) in the NCAA quarterfinals at 5 p.m. Friday. The winner books a ticket for the College Cup in Orlando next weekend.
“Meeting expectations is about where you are right now at this point in the season,” coach Erica Dambach said Tuesday. “You look at what these guys have gone through. (Our) defense is 11 strong, it’s 28 (players on the roster) strong.”
The back line is loaded with experience, with five players in at least their third season with the program, and three in their fourth or fifth year. Three of them missed last season starting with the U.S. under-20 team in the World Cup.
They all knew a lot was expected of the group, so it was up to them to live up to those expectations.
“This whole season we’ve talked about finding our potential, reaching our potential,” senior back Elizabeth Ball said. “It’s all a process.”
For the season, the defense put up some good numbers, allowing 15 goals in their 23 games — a .616 goals-against average that ranks 20 th in the nation. However, since they started Big Ten play Sept. 14, only seven goals have been surrendered, and just two goals have been allowed in six games in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
“We’ve had times in the season where the effort and consistency overall from the team wasn’t good enough,” Dambach said. “Once we found that in the Big Ten tournament obviously the team as a whole has gotten better, the back line has gotten better.”
The back line is anchored by veterans Ball and Brittany Basinger, joined by the trio that started with the national team in Kaleigh Riehl, Maddie Elliston and Ellie Jean. Plus, they get a lot of support from the midfielders and forwards.
Rose Chandler, and the other keepers, get credit for 13 shutouts. But, thanks to the women in front, they allow only 7.5 shots per game and just 3.2 shots on goal. Keeping their defensive shape helps prevent too many scoring opportunities for the opposition.
“Definitely communication is key,” Ball said. “Having a big, strong voice in our back from Rose, and then having our back line just carry the message to everyone else on the field.”
The toughest test comes Friday. The Cardinal average 3.73 goals per game and have not lost since the end of August.
The Nittany Lions are far from intimidated.
They have battled through injuries and inconsistencies, and have fought back from deficits early and late. Those ordeals have toughened the team, and, as Dambach pointed out, is something Stanford has not experienced. The Cardinal — whose defense ranks fourth in the nation in goals against, allowing just seven in 22 games — have not trailed for a second in any game since their lone loss to Florida on Aug. 25.
Even if the Nittany Lions are playing on the Cardinal’s field, Dambach isn’t concerned.
“There’s a belief in this group that it doesn’t really matter what we’re facing right now, who we’re facing or where we’re facing,” she said.
It also doesn’t hurt that that veteran group of backs, and many others on the team, also have the experience of winning the NCAA title in 2015, with the old-timers imparting their wisdom to the younger team members.
“The 2015 season was a dream,” senior forward Frannie Crouse said. “We obviously look back at it and look at the ride that we had and learn from that, bring it to this team and teach the younger kids.”
The Nittany Lions may be the underdog according to the seedings, but the Nittany Lions will hit the field in northern California with plenty of confidence.
“I like the way we’re playing right now,” Dambach said. “I like the opportunity to go out there and play one of the best teams in the country.”