When the best women’s soccer program comes to town, the pressure is higher and the margin for error is smaller.
Penn State was up to the challenge.
With an early goal from Frannie Crouse and a stifling defense, the No. 5 Nittany Lions shut down No. 6 North Carolina 1-0 Thursday night at Jeffrey Field.
“I knew what Penn State was going to be like,” said North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance, who has 21 national championships to his credit and suffered just his 69th college coaching loss in 39 seasons. “They didn’t disappoint.”
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Not only were the Tar Heels shut out, but they managed just six shots over the 90 minutes, with only two on frame. They averaged 19 shots per game entering the night.
“The details were super important in this game,” Penn State defender Kaleigh Riehl said. “Always checking our shoulder, always bringing people together, organizing, and we knew that we had to bring a blue-collar mentality.”
North Carolina rarely cracked the wall of Lions trying to get into the penalty box before the ball was cleared.
“We came in with a good plan,” PSU coach Erica Dambach said. “They bought into it, they believed it, and they executed it. In our sport, you’ve got two days to put a plan in and they’ve got to be able to execute or you’re not going to be able to be successful.”
The defensive shell frustrated the Heels.
North Carolina’s best chance came with just over three minutes left, when Alessia Russo fired a rocket that keeper Rose Chandler parried over the crossbar.
“They were outstanding,” Dorrance said. “We had a very hard time even creating any real chances. I credit them. The first five or 10 minutes they were all over us.”
The lone goal came just 6:18 into the game, with Charlotte Williams finding Crouse breaking open through the middle. The senior forward split between a pair of Heels to be one-on-one with keeper Samantha Leshnak, tapping the ball inside the left post for her second goal of the season and 35th of her career. The score moved her alone into 11th place on the program’s scoring list for goals and into a tie for 12th for total points (82).
“I’m always kind of shocked that they can create that much space,” Crouse said. “Char’s ball was perfectly placed, and the goalie came out and it was just kind of a tuck into the corner.”
From there, the defensive battle ensued, though Penn State had a number of opportunities on second-half counterattacks. Alina Ortega-Jurado had a break after stepping around a defender but rushed her shot with Leshnak racing out to challenge the play. A little later, Marissa Sheva was alone on a break, cracking a bullet toward the far post that Leshnak managed to get just enough of her right hand on to deflect it wide.
“Those moments will come back to bite you over the course of the season,” Dambach said, hoping her team would learn from the lost opportunities.
While her team could not get an insurance goal, having the early lead made a big difference.
“Putting (North Carolina) on their back foot is what set the tone of the game,” Dambach said. “They started coming after us, and our response when they were coming at us was to fight harder and to dig in more.”
If anyone knows a quality soccer team, it’s Dorrance, who has had 74 All-Americans, 47 World Cup players and 33 Olympians during his tenure. Needless to say, he was puzzled when Penn State was unranked in the United Soccer Coaches Association’s preseason poll.
“You’ve got to be an idiot not to give that sort of team credit,” he said. “I think that’s less an indictment on Penn State as it is on the idiots that are voting in the poll. I told my kids, on paper, I thought the team with the best talent coming into the season was Penn State — which is why we wanted to schedule them. I think they were just overlooked. Find out who was (voting) on that poll, call them up and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ That was just an oversight. The people doing the poll obviously didn’t have a clue.”