Penn State Soccer

Penn State women’s soccer: Nittany Lions shaking off loss to focus on NCAA opener

It did not take long for the Penn State women’s soccer team to put their last loss in the past.

“Give us the day, the rest of that day and the bus ride home to reflect on it,” senior defender Whitney Church said. “As soon as we’re back out on the field we know we have another task ahead of us. We just started focusing on the next game and getting the details right.”

After blazing through the regular season and winning the Big Ten regular-season title for the 16th time in program history, the Nittany Lions made an early exit from the Big Ten Tournament last week. The top-seeded team fell to No. 8 Northwestern 1-0 in the quarterfinals.

After shaking off the sting of their first loss since Oct. 11, and just their second loss since Sept. 5, Penn State (17-3) got back to work preparing for the NCAA Tournament. They are a No. 2 seed and open play at 7:30 p.m. Friday, hosting Buffalo (16-2-3) at Jeffrey Field.

The early exit is actually not new for the Nittany Lion program. Aside from two seasons that did not have a Big Ten Tournament, Penn State has a 5-9 record in the conference event in seasons in which it won at least a piece of the Big Ten title.

Even in 2005, when they officially never lost a game and made it to the national semifinals, and in 2012, when they also were a No. 1 seed and advanced to the NCAA title match, Penn State never reached the Big Ten finals.

Following the loss to the Wildcats last Wednesday, coach Erica Walsh said her team had its best practices of the season Sunday and Tuesday.

“It’s got this group pretty fired up,” Walsh said. “They’re anxious to get out and play again.”

That loss, along with setbacks in the Big Tens and second round of the NCAA Tournament last year, are all inspiring the Nittany Lions.

“We always keep those games in mind as in we don’t want that to ever happen again,” Church said. “We kind of want to move forward from that and make sure we play better than we played in those games.”

Church also noted a lot of similarities from this year’s team to the 2012 group that made it to the finals before a 4-1 loss to North Carolina.

“The belief in this team is just like the belief in that team,” Church said. “I think you can compare the two teams in that way, that we have a belief that we can go really far in this tournament.”

First impressions

With 24 hours to ponder her team’s opening-round opponent, Walsh has already seen a foe that will provide challenges.

She has already seen the team on video and gotten some scouting reports on the Bulls, who will be making the program’s first NCAA appearance. They also have a tough defense, posting 14 shutouts while allowing 13 goals.

“They seem very confident right now,” Walsh said. “I think it’s team that’s ready to go to the NCAAs, not just to go but to compete.”

Splendor on the grass

Buffalo posted an 11-0-1 record at home this season, allowing just five goals. But in a rarity among Division I programs, the Bulls play their home games on the artificial turf football field of UB Stadium.

“They’re really comfortable on the turf field and it’s a big difference,” Walsh said. “Being comfortable on turf means you play with a little quicker speed, and a quicker pace of the game.”

Walsh said aside from Northwestern, Penn State rarely meets an opponent with a turf home field.

While Jeffrey Field is grass, it gives true bounces and plays fast, so the coach is expecting both teams to be attacking in both directions.

“I think it will be an aesthetically-pleasing style of soccer out there,” Walsh said. “You’ve got two teams that want to play and that’s always fun.”

Most purists will say the game belongs exclusively on grass, but it is becoming more common — the PIAA stages nearly all of its soccer tournament games on turf each November, and FIFA is weighing allowing the Women’s World Cup, set for next summer in Canada, to hold games on the fake stuff.

Knowing how good their home field is, there is little argument about the preference for the Nittany Lions.

“Grass is definitely something we all are rooting for,” Church said. “I can speak for myself, but I don’t know many people that would rather play on turf than on grass. I think grass would suit our style of play more, being able to play on the ground.”