Raquel Rodriguez got to be a part of something that no women’s soccer team from Costa Rica had done before.
Now she is hoping to make a little history with Penn State.
The junior midfielder took a break from the Nittany Lions’ season to play for the Costa Rican national team, helping the Ticas qualify for the World Cup for the first time.
Now she steps back onto Jeffrey Field as Penn State (17-3) hosts Buffalo (16-2-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the NCAA first round.
“It’s been so long,” Rodriguez said. “I miss it and I cannot wait to play in Jeffrey again and just enjoy every moment, every minute in there.”
Rodriguez — nicknamed “Rocky” — missed six games this season while playing with her national team in the CONCACAF regional qualifying for next summer’s World Cup. This would be the senior national team, not an under-20 team or other age group that is often the reason a Nittany Lion misses part of a season. In the finals on Oct. 26, Costa Rica lost 6-0 to the U.S., with Abby Wambach scoring four goals and former Nittany Lion Ali Krieger anchoring the defense.
“There’s just no point of comparison between the two teams,” Rodriguez said of the experience playing the world power. “That is by no means any excuse, that just means we can only get better from this point on.”
By that point, Costa Rica had already qualified for the World Cup, with the two finalists receiving berths for the tournament. It means her country is the first from Central America ever to qualify for the final tournament.
Rodriguez said most of the team has been playing together since they were 13 or 15 years old, and are glad to see the years of work pay off. She scored three goals during the tournament, once in a 2-1 win against Jamaica and twice during a 6-1 win against Martinique, with the goals about a minute apart and just moments after she entered the game as a late-match substitute.
With the tournament played in the U.S., including matches in Washington and the finals played downstate in Chester, it also meant Rodriguez and her teammates had a vocal blue-and-white rooting section of alumni and family members of her teammates.
With the team in season, the Nittany Lions could not make it to Chester for the game, but they were together watching on television and not all cheering for their own country.
“To be honest, I was rooting for Rocky all the way,” senior defender Whitney Church said. “Definitely rooting for my teammate here. It was definitely a fun experience to watch both teams play against each other.”
Penn State started the season 12-1 before the departure of Rodriguez and it fell 1-0 to Rutgers, then rolled off five more wins to close the regular season.
She was back in time for the regular-season finale against Nebraska, getting in 21 minutes to be reacquaint herself with her teammates, then missed their Big Ten quarterfinal loss to Northwestern so she could catch up on missed class time.
Despite the missed practice and game time with the Nittany Lions, not much seemed to be lost.
“This is the best I’ve seen Rocky play in her time here,” said Erica Walsh, the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year. “She is flying. She is rested, she is excited. In her words (Monday), she couldn’t quite phrase it, but she wanted to say she’s anxious to get back to the team.”
The timing and instincts with her teammates already seems to have returned.
“I was a little nervous about that,” said Rodriguez, who has five goals and two assists this season and 15 goals for her career. “The chemistry came back in — didn’t take that long.”
“Flawless,” Church chimed in. “Dare I use the words.”
They also like what it means to regain the connections and comfort so quickly.
“That’s part of the excitement,” The Big Ten Midfielder of the Year said. “If it came that fast, then that means that we’ve still got it.”
The Nittany Lions will be facing a Bulls team feeling pretty good as well. They are on a 14-game unbeaten streak, won the Mid-American Conference title, posted 14 shutouts during the season and are making the program’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the stellar defensive numbers for Buffalo, both teams figure to be fairly offensive minded.
The Nittany Lions have been fairly prolific, scoring 46 goals as a team with the 2.30 goals-per-game average 21st in Division I. Freshman Frannie Crouse paces the team with nine goals, with Mallory Weber adding six, and Megan Schafer and Kori Chapic joining Rodriguez with five each.
Katie Roberts’ 11 goals and Celina Carrero’ six scores pace Buffalo, which netted 32 goals as a team.
The second-seeded Nittany Lions are feeling good these days, and it helps to have one of their key players back after one of the best athletic experiences of her life.
“With the way we’ve been playing,” Church said, “we’ve got a real good shot at going pretty deep into the tournament. We’re pretty stoked.”