Three NCAA Tournament quarterfinal appearances in four years — that’s nothing to scoff at.
The five seniors on the Penn State women’s soccer team have had their successes, the zenith coming as they reached a national title game in 2012.
They’ve had their share of heartbreak, too, not only losing that title game, but also being knocked out twice before reaching the College Cup.
These seniors — Britt Eckerstrom, Raquel Rodriguez, Mallory Weber, Megan Ritchey and Teddy Chase — have seen, and experienced, what it takes to make soccer’s Final Four, and what causes shortcomings.
That’s why, as Penn State (19-3-2) prepares for an Elite Eight matchup with West Virginia (19-2-1) at 4 p.m. Saturday at Jeffrey Field, the Nittany Lions are leaning on their seasoned leaders.
“They understand,” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said of her seniors. “Nerves go out the window when you’ve been there.”
Penn State has certainly “been there” with West Virginia. The Nittany Lions and Mountaineers have met 13 times, thrice in the NCAA Tournament. Penn State eliminated West Virginia in 2005, while the latter got revenge in 2007 and 2010.
The Mountaineers also bested the Nittany Lions earlier this year, earning a 1-0 decision at home on Sept. 4.
“It’s a fantastic rivalry between teams that are three hours away, historically have been the Big Ten and Big 12 champions, and have been representing our own conferences well,” Walsh said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done this season. This is arguably the best West Virginia team I’ve seen in my time here.”
That’s saying something, too. West Virginia, the bracket’s No. 2 seed to Penn State’s No. 1 seed, has been nearly as dominant as the Nittany Lions this NCAA Tournament. Penn State has a 15-0 goal margin in its three wins, while West Virginia has a 13-2 advantage.
Walsh is confident in her team, partially because of its recent form, partially because of how it got there.
These Nittany Lions are a far cry from the losing side of Sept. 4, a more complete team hitting on all cylinders. And, to Walsh, it’s mostly thanks to a strong senior class.
“These young players are kind of hanging on every word these seniors are saying right now,” Walsh said. “As a coaching staff, we feel like we’ve been able to turn the team over to this group of seniors, because their leadership and standard have been so great and so high.”
Falling just shy of those standards — failing to advance to the College Cup the past couple of years and coming so close to a title in 2012 — has given the seniors extra motivation.
They don’t want Saturday, their last home game, to be their last game period in blue and white.
“We’ve been through tough times as a team. Upsetting times,” Rodriguez said. “Whenever our season’s over, that’s tough. That fuels you as a senior to remember those times.”
Rodriguez and her fellow seniors have made good on their commitment to Penn State, making the Nittany Lions a team no one wants to face right now.
Walsh acknowledged that, calling this squad the most talented she’s had in her nine years at Penn State.
And those seniors?
“This senior group is a special group.”
Can the group accomplish something special on Saturday?