Penn State Soccer

Penn State’s women’s soccer team wins the program’s first-ever national title

Penn State players celebrate after winning the NCAA Women’s College Cup soccer final against Duke 1-0 in Cary, N.C., on Sunday.
Penn State players celebrate after winning the NCAA Women’s College Cup soccer final against Duke 1-0 in Cary, N.C., on Sunday. The Associated Press

The spin move Raquel Rodriguez performed to score Penn State’s 2015 College Cup game-winning goal was executed with the gracefulness of a figure skater on grass.

It was that swift, that beautiful and that important as the first national title in women’s soccer for the Nittany Lions and the Big Ten Conference as a whole. Penn State beat Duke 1-0 before 10,676 fans Sunday at WakeMed Soccer Park in suburban Raleigh-Durham.

“We call that her salsa dance,” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said, referring to the fancy footwork of her senior All-American forward from Costa Rica.

There were few opportunities for No. 6-ranked Penn State (22-3-2) and No. 20 Duke (14-6-5) to score, but Rodriguez took advantage of one of the few times she slipped free of Duke’s clinging defense.

“Her movement is just so hard to track and locate,” Duke coach Robbie Church said. “She is smart and knows where to move to get the ball.”

With only 18:37 to play in the scoreless tie, Rodriguez was in the middle of the field six yards in front of the goal when senior Mallory Weber received a pass on the right flank. Rodriguez sensed a brief opening for a shot.

“I heard Rocky screaming in the middle,” Weber said. “When Rocky wants the ball you try to find a way to give it to her. I found her feet, and with a little magic she turned and put it in.”

A Duke defender came up to contest the pass and was nearly between Weber and Rodriguez but unable to stop the pass. Rodriguez pivoted her back to the defender while still controlling the ball.

“I did ask for it,” Rodriguez said sheepishly downplaying Weber’s “scream” description. “I made a half-spin and hit it as soon as I could across (the goal).”

With Duke goalie E.J. Proctor leaning left, Rodriguez delivered her shot left-to-right to the back corner of the net. Weber’s assist bumped her team-leading total to 12.

Duke desperately needed a goal to force overtime, but Penn State kept the sending the ball upfield to kill the clock. The Blue Devils’ two best chances in the final moments were a header off of a corner kick that went over the top of the net with 3:13 to play and shot from 25 yards on the right that sophomore defender Brittany Basinger blocked. Penn State goalie Britt Eckerstrom only needed to make one save to record the shutout.

With that last threat deflected, Penn State finished the season with 11 straight wins that included eight shutouts in a row. The last goal yielded was in a 3-1 victory over Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament’s opening round. The Nittany Lions outscored their six NCAA Tournament opponents 20-0.

The Penn State-Rutgers national semifinal that the Nittany Lions won Friday 2-0 was one statement of the Big Ten’s growth in the women’s soccer. To win the national title in the heart of ACC country was a stronger one. This is where the North Carolina dynasty with 21 of the 33 College Cups set the bar for the sport.

Only two other times had a Big Team advanced to a final. Penn State lost in 2012 to North Carolina 4-1, and Wisconsin in 1991 to North Carolina 3-1.

Walsh said the improved depth of the conference helped prepare her team for the NCAA.

“I think the Big Ten in particular this year presented some incredible challenges for us,” Walsh said. “I am thankful that we are a part of that conference because if we hadn’t some of those experiences I don’t know if we’d be sitting in front of you today.”

The enthusiasm of Penn State’s fans was also evident, although they were outnumbered with Duke playing in its backyard. The Park Avenue Army — a student group of 25-30 strong at home matches — numbered only six for the College Cup, but Penn State senior Jeff Hauck, of Danville, and five classmates were a presence. They stood in the front row with their bodies painted, urging on the fans behind them.

“We were outnumbered, but that almost made it more fun for us,” Hauck said. “It made us work harder. We were leading soccer chants and Duke had basketball chants. I think we were better.”

A youth soccer club from Basinger’s hometown of Purceville, Va., also was a presence. Six young girls wore white Penn State T-shirts with “Basinger” printed on the back.

Penn State placed six players on the all-tournament team topped by Rodriguez as the Outstanding Offensive Player. The other five were Weber, Frannie Crouse, Kaleigh Riehl, and Emily Ogle.

Eckerstrom was left off despite her two College Cup shutouts and six NCAA clean sheets.

“I thought she was the best goal keeper in the country this year,” Walsh said. “She showed it week in and week out. Obviously to win a national title it becomes about consistency. She made the big saves, but more importantly day in a day out, she drove this team and made them great.”

Eckerstrom’s grit and Rodriguez’s opportunistic figure-skating move equaled an NCAA title.