Winning the Big Ten Championship was just the start.
Owning a 15-goals-to-nil advantage in the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament was a warmup.
Simply being in the Elite Eight wasn’t enough.
The Penn State women’s soccer team has set expectations for itself. Now, the Nittany Lions are one game closer to fulfilling them.
Penn State is going to the College Cup.
The Nittany Lions, faced with a rematch of an early-season defeat, got the best of West Virginia, winning 2-0 on Saturday evening at Jeffrey Field. They’ll play Rutgers in the NCAA semifinals at 5 p.m. Friday at WakeMed Park in Cary, N.C. Duke and Florida State meet in the other semifinal
It’ll be the program’s fifth appearance in the College Cup, and second trip in the last four seasons. Penn State made it in 2012, when it lost to North Carolina in the title game.
Several players on the current roster — Raquel Rodriguez, Britt Eckerstrom, Mallory Weber, Megan Ritchey and Teddy Chase — were there for the team’s 2012 run.
This time, they’d like a different ending.
“These seniors have been here before,” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. “They’re not satisfied to just go to a College Cup. These guys dream and work to win a national championship. ... They’re going to the College Cup to win it.”
With the way they’re playing, there’s no reason why the Nittany Lions can’t accomplish that.
After throttling Albany, Boston University and Ohio State in the opening games of the tournament, Penn State’s meeting with West Virginia was more difficult, as expected. The Mountaineers beat the Nittany Lions on Sept. 4, and had lost only two games all year before Saturday.
It wasn’t a multi-goal dismantling, but the win was arguably Penn State’s finest of the tournament.
Defensively, Penn State was a rubber band that wouldn’t break. Eckerstrom in goal was, for the most part, flawless, the back line was cohesive against the Mountaineers’ attack, and when individual defenders were caught in one-v-one spots, they prevailed.
In its previous three tournament games, the Nittany Lions’ back line was mostly unneeded. It stepped up Saturday, though, guiding Penn State to its sixth consecutive shutout covering 553:32 of game action.
“The way they’ve come together,” Walsh marveled. “There’s a lot of youth back there, but they’re playing like seniors. ... It’s so impressive.”
Penn State’s tenacity with the ball was equally notable — against a tenacious West Virginia defense no less. The Mountaineers had surrendered a total of nine goals in 22 games before visiting Jeffrey Field.
Penn State broke through in the 11th minute. Sophomore midfielder Emily Ogle struck a free kick from 40 yards out and into the box, and West Virginia goalkeeper Hannah Steadman attempted to punch it away. But she misjudged the attempt and missed it completely. The ball bounced behind her and into the net for Ogle’s fourth tournament goal.
It was a wacky play, one that a senior goalkeeper isn’t accustomed to making. Steadman’s coach knew it, too.
“You don’t expect a senior goalkeeper to do that,” West Virginia coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said. “Anything can happen, and unfortunately, it happened to Hannah.”
While Steadman would like that one back, she couldn’t have done anything about Penn State’s second goal.
Freshman defender Ellie Jean guided the ball down the left flank, cut back inside and passed it into the box, where a few Nittany Lions were waiting. Closest to the ball was Mallory Weber, but behind her — and with more room to operate — was Frannie Crouse.
“It looked like it was going to her,” Crouse said. “I knew that I was more open than she was, so I just screamed, ‘Mal let it go!’”
She did, and Crouse capitalized, drilling a shot into the top-left corner to give Penn State a two-goal lead at the 38:03 mark. It was Crouse’s third goal of the NCAA Tournament, and 10th of the season.
That was all for the scoring. The second half had its chances, especially from the Mountaineers, but Eckerstrom stood on her head on a couple occasions, doing enough to secure a clean sheet.
Penn State will need another complete performance to beat Rutgers on Friday. The two teams have faced twice this year: the Scarlet Knights won at home in mid-October, while Penn State came out on top in the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
Getting a second win over their conference foe is something the Nittany Lions are confident they can do, especially after beating the Mountaineers.
Plus, they still have those expectations to meet.
“We finished our time here on Jeffrey Field in pretty good fashion,” Eckerstrom said. “We’ve got two more games to go to finish this up.”