It’s something all coaches want to see when the most important part of the season arrives.
Each day from the first practice, and each game, they want to see progress and by the end of the year they want to see if the team understands what they have been taught.
Consider the NCAA Tournament the final exam for these college students.
In women’s soccer, it’s a six-part final, and the books are open and the pencils are in hand for part two of that exam at 7 p.m. Friday at Jeffrey Field, when Penn State (18-3) hosts Connecticut (14-4-5).
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It will be the second game of a doubleheader at the Nittany Lions’ home field, with Georgetown (11-4-6) and Virginia Tech (15-5) meeting at 4:30 p.m. The winners meet in the third round at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Coaches, especially those at top college programs, will layer in concept after concept, piece by piece over the course of a season, so by the end they can see their team handle a tougher task than they could when the season kicked off.
“We talk a lot about ‘tipping point,’” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. “Typically when I see that, it means they understand the concept and now it’s in place. We’re at the point in the season where each game we see another concept go into play that we’ve been harping on that we think, ‘check.’ We can move past that.”
One of those concepts Walsh had wanted to see was her back line move as a unit, instinctively filling in a gap as a teammate stretched out to mark an opponent.
Walsh said she could make a mental check mark for her list on that specific topic in the Nittany Lions’ last game, a 4-1 victory over Buffalo in the first round. The only goal surrendered came on a penalty kick, and the Bulls hardly had a shot on goal or even put much pressure in the final third of the field until just a few minutes were left in the game.
“Things are definitely clicking for us, and they’re clicking at a fantastic time,” senior defender Whitney Church said. “This is a perfect time for us to be playing well as a unit and as a team. We could definitely feel it in the game.”
Of course, coaches prefer to have some of the concepts fall into place a little sooner than the NCAA Tournament, but with two freshmen starting in the back, and more toward the front of the formation, there was a lot of course work to cover.
“It’s definitely been a steeper curve,” Walsh said. “It’s at a lower starting point with the young players.”
The movement of the defense was by no means the only question on the final exam.
There were some that got checked off the list much earlier in the season, in areas that are more dominated by juniors and seniors, and others Walsh is still waiting on the answers and have been topics of film discussions this week.
The Nittany Lions hope they pass another portion of the exam Friday, in a rematch of their third game of the season.
However, thanks to all that learning and growth — on both sides — there is only so much that can be learned from that game, which the Nittany Lions won 3-1.
Walsh said UConn is “drastically” different from that meeting, with numerous position changes and a formation change.
It has contributed to a more potent offense, not to mention a defense that has posted six straight shutouts accounting for over 600 straight scoreless minutes for opponents.
“We definitely take stuff from that game,” Church said of the first meeting. “We learn about personalities from that team, stuff like that. We will take as much as we can from that game, but we’ll learn as much as we can from other games to see how much they have changed.”
For these college students, it’s all about how much they can learn, and how much they can use.
“We’ve been out there training since Aug. 5,” Walsh said, “and their attitudes are as good as they’ve been, if not better.”