Penn State soccer: Lions advance to NCAA title game

Christine Nairn tapped the ball into the net and froze in her tracks. Penn State’s senior midfielder believed she just beat Florida State in overtime of the national semifinals. There was a shadow of doubt that kept her from celebrating in earnest.

Nairn looked toward the assistant referee to see if she was offside. It was close, but his flag was down. Then Nairn looked toward the on-field official. His whistle blew and his arm went straight.

The goal was good. The Nittany Lions were going to their first NCAA championship in school history.

She finally had permission to go nuts.

“After that my mind ran blank,” Nairn said. “I was just so happy that we won.”

Penn State beat Florida State 2-1 in an overtime thriller on a rain-soaked Friday at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium. One more win on Sunday and the College Cup comes home. For the championship, the Nittany Lions will face North Carolina, which defeated Stanford 1-0 in double overtime in the other semifinal late Friday.

The Lions earned that chance with discipline, an excellent counter attack and courage under fire. The Nittany Lions built a 1-0 lead and lost it in the final 40 seconds. Then they came fighting back and sealed it with Nairn’s game-sealing strike 72 seconds into sudden-death overtime.

It was an astonishing considering the deflation expected following a heartbreaking equalizer from Seminoles forward Tiffany McCarty in the waning moments. It completed a 10-minute offensive barrage in which Florida State dominated possession.

“Losing 1-0 or 2-0 didn’t matter much,” Florida State coach Mark Krikorian said. “We were going to go for it.”

Florida State scored the late equalizer and got all the momentum that comes with it.

Nairn neutralized it with a passionate post-regulation speech.

“I don’t think I can repeat exactly what I said,” said Nairn, who along with Maya Hayes was named an NSCAA first-team All American on Friday. “The gist of it was about where we’ve come from and what we’re capable of. We’re a Big Ten team, and Big Ten soccer isn’t always pretty. It’s about the battle. It’s about mental toughness. It’s about grit. I knew we were going to play to the last whistle.

“We panicked for a bit right after the score, but we got our head on straight by the time we hit the field and we buried it when we had the chance.”

Nairn’s decisive chance was an easy one. The build-up was as imaginative as it was effective.

Hayes took possession down the left flank. The base line was covered. There was no one to connect with in the penalty box. Hayes astutely sent it back out to midfielder Maddy Evans, who played it low through the box to Nairn.

She made history from there.

There was some question whether Nairn was offside, but all officials believed she had legal standing. That’s why Nairn took a beat before joining her team in such a big moment.

Penn State had been to three previous College Cup semifinals, and lost every time.

Not on this night. Penn State would not be denied.

“We’ve faced all sorts of adversity over the course of the season, which has left us with a belief that we can prevail not matter what is thrown at us,” said Erica Walsh, who recorded her 100th win as Penn State coach. “Their shoulders go back. They take a second. They pause. They reflect (on the setback) and they get back to it and play with confidence.

Hayes played with confidence despite a real lack of touches. But, in the 57th minute, she was in perfect position to take advantage.

Weber led a counter attack down the right flank with enough speed to keep the numbers even. Weber angled inward and then blasted a shot on target Seminoles goalkeeper Kelsey Wys couldn’t corral. It caromed off her hands and Hayes was there to clean it up.