“Soccer is my love and my heart is broken right now.”
Those words were spoken by Tiffany Weimer in 2004, a few minutes after the Penn State women’s soccer team lost to Maryland in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
It remains one of my favorite sports quotes from any story I have written, and has come to mind frequently over the years, almost always unintentionally. It pops into the brain a lot during the fall while watching soccer games. It also came around after watching the Nittany Lions lose in the NCAA tournament in 2012, and I kept wondering when they would finally get all the pieces into place, when the talent would be blended just right, when they would take that final step and bring home a trophy. They were always so good, but what was missing?
They got it all put together just right this season, and finally got to celebrate.
There were no broken hearts this time.
There were a lot of highlights in Centre County sports in 2015, and we will take our annual look back at the best moments next week, but I wanted to single out this special team after its special season.
Finally, finally, there is a national championship trophy for the team, wrapped up by a 1-0 win over Duke on Dec. 6.
Fans sat through many a game over the years at Jeffrey Field, in the heat of late August and bitter chill of late November, in a blustery wind, a driving rain and even under a blanket of snow, waiting for that moment.
There were plenty of near-misses along the way. The season after Weimer spoke those words, she led the team through an undefeated season, the team was denied in a shootout in the national semifinals by Portland. Those two teams — the Pilots were led by current Canadian national team star Christine Sinclair — were the two best teams in the nation all season.
In 2012 there was another special team that seemed to have all the right parts, but lost to North Carolina in the title game.
Not that I ever claim to be an expert in soccer, but I still had to wonder: What was needed for this team to take that final step?
I have seen so many teams and sports over the years, and seen plenty of other national championships.
Their neighbors a few doors away in Rec Hall know all about winning. The women’s volleyball team has six NCAA titles since 2007, and the wrestling team has four. Add in the men’s volleyball program in 2008, and the team offices in one hallway of Rec Hall have picked up a dozen national championship trophies in the past nine years.
From Patrick Farmer to Paula Wilkins to Erica Walsh, the program has had some of the nation’s top coaches, and they have almost always been a contender. The team has never had a losing season in its history, and won or shared 16 Big Ten titles.
They were always right there.
Winning a national championship is always the sweetest, best way to end the season — obviously. But its because of all those other teams falling just short, because of the people who came before like Christie Welsh and Joanna Lohman, Natalie Jacobs and Carmelina Moscato, Christine Nairn and Whitney Church, that this title was won as much for them and all the others who raced across the green grass of Jeffrey Field as it was for the women on this year’s team.
For so many years since, I was always wondering if the 2005 team, the year after Weimer had her heart broken, would be the best ever for the program. They seemed to almost score at will — Weimer alone had 32 goals and failed to score in a game just twice — and was loaded with talent. Three members of that team played in last summer’s World Cup.
But this was the year to finally forget about the almost moments, all the near-misses, to feel the relief, to see a celebration.
That’s why I keep thinking of what Weimer said 11 years ago, and why seeing this program finally reach the finish line was the highlight of 2015.