On an a team filled with offensive fire power the defense of the No. 11 Penn State women’s soccer team can at times be overlooked.
Yet the group, anchored by sophomore Whitney Church as well as goalie and graduate student Erin McNulty, has been vital to the Nittany Lion’s 6-2-0 record. The Lions have given up nine goals in their eight matches this season and are outscoring opponents 23-9.
Adjustment has been the major theme for the defense so far, with a new defensive set, players learning new positions and numerous injuries to the back line.
Last year the Lions would keep four defenders back allowing the outsides to be more aggressive and push the ball forward. This season however the Lions have switched to three in the back line forcing defenders to stay at home and focus more on protecting the goal.
Sophomore Kori Chapic has described the new defense as a mentality switch for the Lions.
“With such a tight compact defense and less players I think that our communication is something that has to come out now,” Chapic said. “Another player, so to speak, on the field is our communication. We’re really young in the back so building up the confidence with our voices is going to be one our biggest go-to this fall.”
Communication has not always come easy for the young back line. With the two sophomores and one freshman in Corey Persson currently starting for the Lions, players have had to learn quickly.
Chapic and Persson both came in originally as forwards and though Chapic has a season of experience under her belt, Persson has been forced to make the necessary changes to her game.
“It’s definitely been different, learning a new position has been very fun,” Persson said. “Whit and Kori have been such a good help along with the rest of the team trying to give me pointers. I’m just trying to get better and do what I can for the team.”
Head coach Erica Walsh has been impressed with the freshman’s progress but admits Persson still has a lot to learn.
“It’s been a really tall order for Corey Persson, this is a big ask,” Walsh said. “She’s made some big mistakes but there’s no one else on our team right now that could do what she’s doing for us.”
One of the biggest issues for the Lions this season has been injury, especially for the defense. Before the season, seniors Lexi Marton and Jackie Molinda were both shut down for the year with injury. The two seniors were consistent starters for the Lions last year and expected to lead the defense this year.
Junior Bri Hovington and senior Bri Garcia, who were both starters at the beginning of the season, have missed time due to injury as well. Hovington has not played since Aug. 31 against Virginia and Garcia has been out since the team’s Sept. 8 match against BYU. According to Walsh, Hovington and Garcia could see action as early as this weekend with upcoming matches against Northwestern and Illinois.
Even with these absences, the defense has been able to maintain a high level of play that has kept the Lions high in the rankings.
“I’m extremely proud of the way we have responded,” Church said. “We’ve got a great bench, we’ve got great depth, so we can pull people in and they fit right into the flow of the game. Having to psychologically deal with people going down, I think we’ve stuck to the principles of our defending and nothing has dropped.”A lot of the responsibility has been on Church to lead the defense, though she played center midfielder last year her role has not changed very drastically because of her ability to communicate and organize the defense from the center. Walsh has sung high praises of her defender for her leadership.
“I think that Whit Church is the best defensive player in the country hands down,” Walsh said. “Her decision making is spot on, it’s at a world class level. Tactically whoever is in there has to read the game better than anyone else if we’re going to play the way we’re playing right now and she rarely makes mistakes.
”Even with the solid early play of her defense, Walsh has stressed that her players, especially the leaders such as Church and McNulty, have to let themselves make mistakes in order to learn.
“They can put too much blame on themselves when in reality any goals that we give up are team goals like any goals we score are team goals,” Walsh said. “That’s the reason why they’re great is because they take full ownership of any goals we’ve given up this season.”