Christine Nairn looked toward the heavens for relief, any way to keep emotion at bay.
Penn State’s 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 senior’s sadness was so raw, her passion for the program so deep that she mourned the loss of a national title with tears.
Nairn’s 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. It’ll just...”
That’s when the senior put a hand on coach Erica Walsh’s shoulder and tapped out.
“I think Christine’s emotions stem from how far she’s 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. It’s okay to be sad at times like these.
“The team you see in front of you here is a family. That’s why the result is so hard for us to process. We’ve reached the end and it’s not the finale we worked and hoped for. Now we’ve got to start a new chapter.”
Nairn won’t 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 nation’s 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 Sunday’s final at the University of San Diego’s 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 Carolina’s 15-player rotation (in total, the Tar Heels played 21) wore down Penn State’s 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 you’ve 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, you’re constantly searching for answers. That’s 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 Nairn’s perfectly paced through ball.
The game got away in the second half, with goals from Satara Murray and Ranee Premji, but scoring disparity isn’t 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 they’ve put in this season and the leadership presented by our senior class,” she said. “I told them how much I’ve 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 women’s soccer.”