In two of the past three years, the Penn State women’s lacrosse team has been oh-so-close.
In 2013, it was a loss to conference foe Northwestern. Last year, the Nittany Lions fell to North Carolina 11-8.
Twice, they’ve been one win away from the Final Four.
But now, after an overtime victory in the second round and an emotional, home victory in the quarterfinals, Penn State is primed for its first NCAA semifinals appearance since 1999.
And they’ll be facing a familiar foe.
The Nittany Lions will square up with the No. 3 Tar Heels for the second year in a row, and a spot in the national title game is on the line, as the two sides meet at 5 p.m. Friday at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester.
The winner will advance to play either No. 1 Maryland or No. 4 Syracuse at noon Sunday.
Penn State — ranked No. 11 in the country but unseeded in the NCAA Tournament — is an obvious underdog. North Carolina has reached six Final Fours since 2009, was runner-up in 2009 and 2015, and won the whole thing in 2013.
Penn State’s last championship game appearance was in 1989.
Regardless of what history says, though, the Nittany Lions are ready for the challenge.
“We know we’re the underdog,” Penn State coach Missy Doherty said. “It’s our first time back there in a while. But we also know that we love to compete, and that’s what we want to bring to this weekend.”
Doherty, the 2015 Big Ten Coach of the Year, understands firsthand what it takes to win a title — or three.
As a four-year defender at Maryland, Doherty helped the Terrapins to a trio of national championships (1995, 1996, 1997).
Doherty said throughout practices and meetings this past week, she’s preached to her players about being loose and playing easy.
“What it boils down to is the ability to perform and be able to let some of those things surrounding you go and concentrate on the play at hand,” the sixth-year coach said.
It seems like that message has reached her players.
Sure, no one on Penn State’s roster has reached a national semifinal.
“All the teams in the Final Four, they’ve been there. They’ve experienced it,” senior attacker Jenna Mosketti said. “None of us really know what to expect. But we’re just really excited, and going to bring a lot of energy when we’re there.”
Fellow senior Ally Heavens said they’re all going to try to take it as “just another game”.
“We haven’t really freaked out about it,” Heavens said. “We don’t like easy games. That’s our vibe. We love playing big teams.
“Maybe we’ll feel like underdogs, but we’re confident within ourselves and ready to play anybody.”
The Nittany Lions have a right to be confident.
After wrecking Winthrop 16-6 in the NCAA first round, Penn State edged No. 2 Florida 14-13 in overtime in the second round. That adrenaline carried over to Penn State’s 8-4 win over No. 14 Penn last weekend.
The Nittany Lions played stellar defense against the Quakers, holding Penn to its lowest scoring total all season. Penn State goaltender Emi Smith made eight saves, and the defensive unit clamped down on Penn’s top scorers, including Nina Corcoran, the NCAA’s leader in assists.
“The defense in that game really stepped up,” Doherty said. “They played really smart and ahead of the game. ... They understood what was coming next.”
Doherty hopes for a similar effort against the Tar Heels, who average 13.7 goals per game, good for third-best in the nation.
Doherty believes playing against teams like Maryland, Northwestern and Stanford in the regular season, as well as Florida and Penn in the postseason, has groomed her Nittany Lions for this situation.
“The goals can come from any player, so on defense, you can’t take anyone for granted,” the coach noted. “You have to be ready to get low and play these attackers like they’re about to score.”
Whatever the outcome, Doherty is proud of her squad’s achievement, doing something no Penn State women’s lacrosse team has done in nearly two decades.
Reaching the Final Four was Penn State’s goal before the season, so the players are thrilled to be there, too.
But the Nittany Lions want to keep this season going further than Friday.
“No one wants to go home,” Mosketti said. “It’s a really cool feeling.”