Erica Walsh openly admitted it — she’s going to miss her senior class.
There’s something about some big personalities, that can pull a team together and do what no one had done before, that can leave an indelible mark on a coach and program.
“I’m just in awe of what this senior class has done for this program and this university,” Penn State’s women’s soccer coach said Monday afternoon, hours after returning from San Diego and her Nittany Lions’ 4-1 loss to North Carolina in the national championship game.
Penn State won in a variety of ways this past season, from lopsided blowouts thanks to the nation’s top goal-scoring offense, to overtime and shootout thrillers to goals in the final minute of regulation.
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What got them to a 21-4-2 record, a fourth appearance in the College Cup and the program’s first ever trip to the finals was a fine display of chemistry, blending offense and defense and bonded by a small but vocal and headstrong senior class.
Midfielders Maddy Evans and Christine Nairn, along with several other key players, provided the glue that made this team work, the drive that got the Nittany Lions dramatic wins and the will to take the program to a new level.
“Leadership was the name of the game this year,” Walsh said. “Our seniors were everything for us and they taught us how to lead, but that doesn’t mean the next class coming up will fill in those shoes.”
Walsh can only hope to see this season duplicated in 2013.
On paper it looks promising, with eight returning starters including four of the top six goal-scorers, and after getting so close to hoisting the championship trophy it should only make them more hungry. It’s up to next year’s seniors like Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram to hoist the team onto their backs.
“I watch these guys right now and they want the world,” Walsh said. “Now that they understand what that means, I don’t see anything in their behavior that leads me to believe that things will be different in the future. One thing we learned was how incredibly challenging it is to get to that point and how so many things need to go your way to compete for a national championship.”
The loss was still pretty raw for the team, and for Walsh, even on Monday. She had hardly slept, thanks to a redeye flight back to State College on Sunday night, and was still struggling to appreciate the season as a whole while digesting a tough loss.
It was even tougher on the seniors, who won’t get the chance to suit up in blue and white again and who broke down in tears after Sunday’s loss.
“You could feel the disappointment in the team,” Walsh said. “For good reason. They felt they let one get away from them. You can throw out any reason that occurred, and at some point I can provide some perspective to them, but I do feel they left everything out on the field, which is why they feel the disappointment they feel.”
The experience was nonetheless a thrill for Walsh, who has been to the Olympics and World Cup as an assistant coach for the U.S. team since she arrived in State College six years ago.
It was her first trip to the College Cup as a head coach, and while previous teams had a strong collection of talent, they lacked that little bit extra, that bonding agent, that got the program more than just a Big Ten title and a handful of postseason wins.
“With a little bit of perspective, obviously I’m very proud of our season,” Walsh said. “I’m trying to look at the body of work, and not let the disappointment from (Sunday) overshadow the collection of great performances and growth I saw in this team over the course of the season.”
It was a tough loss, especially after sitting in a 1-1 tie at halftime against the Tar Heels, but it will be a weekend that will be hard for Walsh and all of her Nittany Lions to forget.
“I have so much hope and excitement and promise for the future,” Walsh said. “But I am struggling with the loss of this senior class. They are a very special group to me.”