It was the right way to end the regular season for the Penn State men’s soccer team.
Especially after the way the previous game ended.
Mikey Minutillo scored with just under 10 minutes left in regulation to give the Nittany Lions a 1-0 victory over Akron on Wednesday night at Jeffrey Field.
“We talked about it before the game,” Minutillo said. “We said, “We’ve got to get this win so we can carry the momentum right into the conference tournament.’ We’re playing good.”
It ended a long losing skid to the Zips. Akron had won the last five meetings and was unbeaten in the last nine. Penn State had not beaten the Zips since 2004.
“We’ve had some great games with them, and I thought it was just a beautiful goal,” Penn State coach Bob Warming said. “I’m just really happy for Mikey. He’s been working hard.”
It was a bit of a bittersweet night for the No. 23 Nittany Lions (12-4-1). With their conference schedule already concluded, their quest for a third straight Big Ten title was denied when Maryland beat Rutgers to pass Penn State in the standings. The Lions had been atop the conference all season and seemed ready to lock up the title until a double-overtime loss at Northwestern on Sunday.
“Massive disappointment,” Warming said. “We’re 100 seconds away from winning the third one, and last year was the first time we had ever won two in school history. We had a chance to be a three-peat and that doesn’t happen very often in our sport.”
The conference trophy, along with hats and T-shirts, were nearby in case things did break the right way for the Nittany Lions and they could celebrate.
Penn State, which had lost four of its last five games, finished in a tie for second, but dropped all the way to a No. 4 seed. It will still host a first-round Big Ten match against Michigan State at 1 p.m. Sunday at Jeffrey Field.
The Nittany Lions built up a pretty play to net the goal, with Riley Grant taking the ball from Brandon Savini’s sideline pass deep to the end line. Grant then chipped a cross to the near post and Minutillo headed the ball into the net.
“It was brilliant,” Minutillo said of Riley’s cross that set up his seventh goal of the season. “That’s the second assist he gave me this year. Every time he gets the ball I just try to get in the box because I know it’s coming right for me.”
For Grant, it also was a personal victory against his former school, transferring from Akron over the summer.
“It’s a weird feeling,” said Grant, who, along with fellow former Zip Brett Gravatt, caught up with their former teammates and coaches after the game. “I’m glad I was able to help the team, so no hard feelings or anything.”
Keeper Andrew Wolverton made five saves, nearly all of them spectacular, to preserve the Nittany Lions’ chances.
“Whoo! Cheese and crackers!” Warming said. “It was a really good night to have a couple agents here, which there were, a really good night with a couple of pro scouts. It was a really good night for him to do what he did.”
Akron’s Adam Najem unloaded a rocket from about 10 yards away late in the first half, with the senior keeper making a diving one-handed save, deflecting the ball wide of the post.
Early in the second half the Zips’ Sean Sepe sent a solid shot from the middle of the box toward the top shelf that Wolverton made a leaping two-handed deflection to stop, and a few minutes later Sepe made another run up the field and unloaded a shot that got under Wolverton, but he got a hand on the ball and slowed it enough for defender Mike Robinson to clear it inches from the goal line.
Then in the final three minutes, Sam Gainford unloaded a shot that Wolverton made a sprawling save to deflect, then seconds later a cross to Stuart Holthusen was redirected that the keeper got two hands on to stop.
“It’s part of my job, just like Mikey scoring goals, that’s what I have to do to help the team win,” Wolverton said. “Fortunate to get a hold of some tonight.”
The senior finished with his first shutout since Oct. 4 and ninth of the season.
“He was the reason we got that shutout,” Minutillo said. “He had three or four big, big saves that I haven’t seen any other goalie in the nation make. I’m just glad we got the win.”