At a time of year when families are gathering for big meals, the Penn State women’s soccer team is about to find out if it has the right blend of ingredients for its own gathering.
Since the first practice in August, the Nittany Lions have been trying to find just the right combination on the field, blending a solid dose of experienced veterans with quite a few freshmen.
Through the course of the season the recipe saw its share of adjustments, adding a little here, subtracting a little there.
The Nittany Lions (20-3) are among the final eight Division I women’s teams in the nation still playing soccer, and after they meet Texas A&M (21-2-2) at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Aggies’ Ellis Field, they hope to join three other teams at the College Cup, set for next weekend in Boca Raton, Fla.
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Concocting the recipes this season were head coach Erica Walsh and her staff, who had at their disposal four strong-minded seniors and seven juniors who were a part of the 2012 trip to the national championship match, then added in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes with 11 freshmen.
Having so much experience around the field has helped settle and train all those newcomers.
“Experience is everything,” said fifth-year senior midfielder Emily Hurd, who leads the team with eight assists. “The juniors and seniors are going in with a little bit of confidence because we’ve been in this position before, we handled it and it continued on to the next round. We have such a talented group of young players and it’s such a great combination and we’ve seen it all season.”
The blending is apparent in the team scoring, with Penn State 20th in the nation averaging 2.3 goals per game.
The goal-scoring leader is freshman Frannie Crouse, with 10, who is one of a half-dozen freshmen starting or earning key minutes as they head into the most important game of their college careers — so far.
“All season these guys have been unbelievable with all of the types of things,” assistant coach Ann Cook said. “I almost feel it’s a benefit for us that they haven’t been in these environments before so they don’t have a full appreciation of what’s at stake. Right now we just want them to go out and play soccer because they are really good at that.”
The same can be said with the back four on defense, with the well-seasoned Whitney Church and Kori Chapic shepherding Maddie Elliston and Elizabeth Ball.
“We take defense as a full team effort, and it starts at the forwards,” Hurd said. “We really emphasize on doing a high-pressure system. … Our back line has developed so well over the past season and they’re really playing their best soccer right now.”
They will need to be at their best against the Aggies.
While the Nittany Lions’ offense has been fairly prolific, Texas A&M has been finding the net even more, scoring 2.72 goals per game, which is seventh in the nation. The offense is led by double-digit goal-scorers Kelley Monogue (17 goals, 10 assists), Shea Groom (16, 7) and Bianca Brinson (10, 8).
They have outscored their NCAA Tournament opponents 14-3 so far, and have won eight straight NCAA matches at home.
“They for sure are very gifted and talented,” Cook said, “but I think we have as much as they do in the attack, and we have a really good backline and goalkeeper all playing well.”
Penn State is making its first trip to College Station since 2006, with another more important trip there in 2005. The Nittany Lions met Portland in the College Cup semifinals at Ellis Field in a showdown of the two best teams, and players, in women’s college soccer that season. The Pilots, with Canadian National Team star Christine Sinclair, prevailed in a shootout over Penn State and Tiffany Weimer. The prolific scorers finished 1-2 in the nation in goals that season.
One more win returns the Nittany Lions to the College Cup for a fifth time in program history, and the seniors will do their best to get back there — if the recipe remains just right.
“It’s such a blessing,” Cook said. “They want desperately to get back and that drives a lot of what they do in their preparation and conversations with the younger players.”