They were bumped and bruised but a new-look No. 11 Penn State women’s soccer team was able to open its Big Ten schedule with a victory.
On an afternoon where juniors Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram were honored for their U-20 World Cup victory, the Nittany Lions (6-2-0) defeated No. 13 Wisconsin (6-2-0) 2-1, for their first victory over the Badgers since 2008.
Wisconsin lived up to its reputation as a physical team sending several of Penn State’s players to the grass, however the Lions were able to counter by controlling the ball and creating offensive opportunities.
“[Wisconsin] is as good as anyone in the country at what they do,” head coach Erica Walsh said. “If we try to play the way they play, they will beat us.”
The Lions stuck to their focus of ball control and were able to wear down the Wisconsin defense. The offense was able to draw a foul in the 42nd minute that set up sophomore Whitney Church for a corner kick from the right side. Church guided the ball over the defense and freshman Raquel Rodriguez connected on a header in the middle that put the Lions up 1-0.
Penn State dominated the ball with eight shots on goal to Wisconsin’s three.
“Because we can possess the ball, in my opinion, as well as anybody right now eventually they’re going to tire,” Walsh said. “When we figure out what that moment is we have to have a killer instinct.”
Hayes was able to contribute immediately in her first game with the team this season seeing time at both midfield and forward and scoring her first goal of the season.
“I was happy to be back on Jeffrey Field with the music, the crowd and the team,” Hayes said. “The atmosphere itself, it was awesome.”
Hayes showed no signs of jetlag, pressing the defense with four shots on goal. Though she had a penalty shot denied after a diving save by Wisconsin goalie Lauren Gunderson she was able to make up for it in the 47th minute.
Hayes received the ball on the left side and was able to maneuver around her defender, penetrate to the middle and beam a shot into the top right corner of the net in the 47th minute.
“Coach puts me out there because I like to score goals, I know the defender’s job is to stop me, but I don’t let them stop me,” Hayes said. “That was the only thing in my head, to get to the goal.”
Schram did not play, according to Walsh she wanted to give the forward time to recover from travel.
The Lions were able to step up defensively even with the two injured starters in senior Bri Garcia (knee) and junior Bri Hovington (concussion). Church led the three-back defensive charge for the Lions, which only allowed one goal, in the 80th minute to Wisconsin’s Lexi Peterson.
Church credited the Lions’ bench for players being able to fill the role of these starters such as freshman Corey Persson who is started in place of Hovington.
This was the first of 11 conference matches for the Lions, who have historically been a top Big Ten team with 14 conference championships. Having not faired well against Wisconsin in years past added incentive for some of the Lions’ upperclassmen prior to Sunday’s game.
“We wanted a strong start to the Big Ten and I did want to finish my time here saying I beat Wisconsin in conference play,” senior Maddy Evans said. “Especially in Jeffrey and the fashion in which we did it, I’m proud of us.”
The Lions continue their Big Ten schedule next week with matches against Northwestern and Illinois. Walsh pointed to her team’s depth as the key factor to success in conference play.
“I thought today was a statement to the Big Ten and to ourselves that we’ve taken on a number of injuries but we’ve got kids that are just getting the work done,” Walsh said. “They can kick us or take a player here or there but the next one’s just going to come in.”