Penn State Soccer

Penn State women’s soccer: Seniors driving Nittany Lions back to top of Big Ten

Penn State’s Whitney Church, right, is one of a handfull of seniors on a Nittany Lion squad set for the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday.
Penn State’s Whitney Church, right, is one of a handfull of seniors on a Nittany Lion squad set for the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday. CDT photo

Officially, Penn State women’s soccer head coach Erica Walsh has two full-time assistant coaches.

That list does not count four others who have helped bring the team success — unofficial coaches Whitney Church, Kori Chapic, Emily Hurd and Kindrah Kohne.

“We had four additional coaches on the field for us in our senior class,” Walsh said. “I attribute all of our success to them. As a coach you dream that when the whistle blows you can turn the game over to your players, especially in soccer, and that’s exactly what happened fairly early in the season.”

The No. 6 Nittany Lions (17-2, 12-1 Big Ten) returned to the top of the Big Ten standings this season, taking a win streak of five straight and 14 of the last 15 into the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal contest against Northwestern at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The four seniors helped make it possible.

As Walsh described them, Church is the cerebral player anchoring the backs, while Chapic gives them strength, Hurd is the “people person” in the midfield and Kohne stabilizes the bench.

With a large and talented freshman class, Walsh was in need of mentoring help, sometimes with half the starting lineup made of first-year players.

“We try to preach that you’re only as good as the players around you,” Walsh said. “It’s your job to make each other feel as comfortable as possible. Coaches will take you out of your comfort zone, as will opponents and conditions, but it’s your job to stick together.”

Church, who said she can see herself as a coach for real some day down the road, enjoyed the chance to tutor her young teammates and solidify the back line with freshmen Elizabeth Ball and Maddie Elliston.

“It was a challenge in the beginning,” Church said. “But it came along much faster than, I think, any of us could have hoped for. They have grown so much over the season. It’s awesome to see them grow.”

While Penn State is no stranger to a top 10 ranking and contending for a national title, this year’s team is a little different. Instead of the star goal-scorers of the past decade like Maya Hayes, Christine Nairn or Tiffany Weimer, this year’s team has no double-digit goal-scorers, but eight different women with at least three goals.

“We feel we’re dangerous on the attack,” Walsh said. “We’ve got many different weapons, different players are scoring each match, somebody else is on the scoresheet, but we really want to keep our opponents off the scoresheets and that’s a big area of focus right now.”

The balance has helped blend in the newcomers with the veterans.

“It creates a type of chemistry,” Walsh said. “Sharing the scoring, sharing the assists creates a team environment that’s created a really good feeling within our team right now.”

Penn State got a boost this week with the return of junior midfielder Raquel Rodriguez, who missed five games playing with the Costa Rican national team in regional qualifying for next year’s Women’s World Cup. Rodriguez scored three goals during the tournament.

The Nittany Lions are poised for another high NCAA seeding, which will be announced next week. Penn State figures to be a No. 1 or 2 seed, based on its record and a No. 4 ranking in this week’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI).

“It’s exciting to get into the postseason,” Church said. “It’s an amazing time. It’s one of the cooler parts of the year.”

Walsh is certainly feeling comfortable as she watches her team chase those NCAA dreams.

“It’s a coach’s dream to turn the game over to your players,” Walsh said. “These four have created an environment where it’s their team, they’re in charge. They have a wonderful group of followers that are ready and willing to be led.”