It was a chance that had to be taken.
But nobody saw Taylor Schram and Maya Hayes connecting this well this fast.
Now, ever since the two forwards were paired up at the top of the Penn State women’s soccer team’s formation last Sunday, they’ve just been making things happen. They’ve been so successful in fact, the coaches have just stepped back and let it play.
“We haven’t had much of an opportunity to screw them up,” assistant coach Ann Cook said. “We haven’t done a lot of coaching with them and we’re kind of letting them do what they do and it’s working really well.”
When Tani Costa was lost for the season in mid-August with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the coaches knew they had to replace the production from their leading scorer in 2010. Freshman Kori Chapic filled in during the season opener, but her role with the team is a dynamic threat at left back.
Looking for something, the coaches turned to Schram — one of the smallest players on the team — but one with a natural ability to get the ball in the back of the net. Schram was plucked out of the midfield and entrenched in the same spot she scored 145 goals out of in high school.
“I played forward in high school, but obviously that’s a lot different than college level,” Schram said. “I was pretty nervous at the beginning. Tani Costa, those are huge shoes to fill, but I had a lot of encouragement from my teammates.”
That first game, there were signs the pair could be successful, but it catapulted to a new level this past weekend. Schram broke out against West Virginia, finishing the game with three assists, a goal and two breakaways she would like a do-over on.
Not only has Schram built an instant chemistry with Hayes, but the sophomore has also connected well with junior midfielder Christine Nairn, who played Schram three perfect through balls against the Mountaineers. With Schram having played a year in Penn State’s midfield, Nairn believes it helps the forward have a better awareness of when and where the pass is coming from.
“She kinda knows where I’m going to be playing the ball, spraying the balls and she reacts to them really well,” Nairn said. “Whether they’re a crap pass by me or anybody, she jumps on pretty quick. And her and Maya, once they get going, you can’t really slow them down.”
Hayes’ biggest asset is her speed, as few defenders can stay with her step for step, but Schram isn’t lacking in that department either, possessing a good first step that gives her separation from defenders. And despite being shorter than her listed 5-foot-5, Schram is deceptively strong and plays well with her back to the goal.
Both forwards are instinctive, which has helped their early success and each is quick enough to make a run on short notice. Penn State head coach Erica Walsh complimented the way Schram seized her chance Friday and noted the sophomore’s ability to find spaces around the goal.
“She’s sneaky, she’s tough to keep track of and she nips in and gets a head on the ball or a toe on the ball,” Walsh said. “She’s just a very tricky player, great versatility and her work ethic was just outstanding.”
Everything that works so well between Hayes and Schram came together on Hayes’ second goal against the Mountaineers.
Midfielder Bri Garcia played the ball to Schram, who was facing away from the net as Hayes darted in. Without hesitation, Schram backheeled the ball right into Hayes’ path and she slotted the ball home to almost the exact spot Schram had hit just minutes earlier.
“We have similar instincts as forwards, we think alike,” Schram said. “That flick, I just saw her out of the corner of my eye and I thought ‘She’s gonna be there, so I just went for it. We just take risks and read each other well.”
Schram set up all three of Hayes’ goals this weekend, and their first goal together showed everything that works between the two. Goalkeeper Erin McNulty fired a long punt that Schram jumped up and headed forward, where Hayes caught up to it and beat the keeper.
“Playing with her against Nevada last weekend, it was kind of just a thrown-in situation and we just came together quickly,” Hayes said. “Next thing you know, we came into training and things were starting to buzz even in our 11-v-11’s and it literally just came together really easily.”
If there’s one concern about the new pairing, it’s size. Hayes isn’t a physical player, using her speed more while Schram’s height will put her at a disadvantage against taller defenders.
While the coaches are thinking about that possibility, especially in the physical Big Ten, they know the forwards are smart enough to adapt. If the forwards are getting overpowered, they know they can play it out to their teammates with confidence.
“The team has learned a lot from even just [Sunday], having players running through them,” Cook said. “Instead of having them check straight back for the ball, we can have them check on an angle and make more diagonal runs, little slip runs, we have more weaponry this year.”
Time will tell how successful Schram’s stint at forward will be, but for know, the sophomore is enjoying a good run of success and has her teammates behind her.
“She’s awesome, she’s in her own place up there,” junior Maddy Evans said. “It’s incredible. I’m so happy for her and I’m glad to see her and Maya are complimenting each other so well.”