With the opportunity to clinch a 15th straight Big Ten title against second-place Michigan on Sunday, a Friday match against a Michigan State squad dwelling towards the bottom of the conference might seem like a small obstacle.
This does not hold true for the No. 4 Penn State women’s soccer team (14-2-0, 8-0-0 Big Ten), who have been committed to a “one game at a time” focus that has paid off with an undefeated Big Ten record. They are ready for the challenge that the Spartans (8-6-2, 2-5-1 Big Ten) will bring to Jeffrey Field.
“For us Friday’s a big game, this team appreciates each of these opponents” coach Erica Walsh said. “We always go into these weekends as we have two games and two wins ahead of us.”
Against Michigan State, the Lions will try to key in on getting the ball wide for scoring opportunities as well as their ability to possess the ball, which has allowed them to pour in a league leading 52 goals.
Over the weekend, the Lions will also have to focus on their set pieces led by freshman Raquel Rodriguez, who has been able to create numerous opportunities with her corner kicking abilities. They will have to be prepared for Michigan State’s center backfield defender Annie Steinlage. The junior has led the Spartans’ defense all season long and is considered by Walsh to be “one of the best heading players in the conference.”
Against Iowa and Nebraska this past weekend, the Lions saw the ability to score off of high pressure from top to bottom, getting turnovers from their forwards to work with a short field. This will only increase the scoring chances of their heavy-loaded front line anchored by junior Maya Hayes.
“A huge focus for us will be high pressure, high on the field to protect our defense,” redshirt junior Tani Costa said. “We have a few nicks and injuries with our defensive players right now. We want to work harder on defense for them so they don’t have to do all the work.”
The Lions will have to be prepared to deal with a Spartan attack led by senior Olivia Stander. She is one of the top playmakers in the conference and is currently eighth in the Big Ten in points with five shots and eight assists this season.
Penn State will have a chance to win the Big Ten when they face the only other undefeated conference team in No. 17 Michigan (13-2-1, 7-0-1 Big Ten). The Wolverines are the only other nationally ranked team within in the conference. They have been powered by a defense that has allowed only six goals this season with 11 shutouts in 16 games, tops in the Big Ten.
“It’s going to be so intense, it’s going to be a bloodbath I know it,” Costa said. “We’ve been talking about it all week and it’s so important. We have to rise to the occasion and it’s difficult to play on Sunday because we have a hard game Friday.”
Michigan opened the weekend with another big league match against Ohio State late last night. They will have to shift their focus quickly to handle Penn State’s unique scoring attack.
The top scoring offense versus the top goal-saving defense will lead to a duel that may be the biggest Big Ten match of the season.
“As far as Penn State goes, they clearly dominated the league this year,” Michigan head coach Greg Ryan said. “They’re scoring so many goals and no matter who they’re playing against their ability to score has been phenomenal. We have to have a great defensive game and find our chances when we can.”
Junior Nkem Ezurike leads the Wolverines with eight goals and 17 points, but they have shown balance in their offense with 13 different players contributing on 29 goals this season.
Getting past Michigan goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer will be a true challenge for the Lions’ potent offense. The junior leads the Big Ten in goals against (6) and save percentage (.902) she is fourth with 55 total saves.
“This is a disciplined hard working team with some very special players,” Walsh said. “They had three players in the world cup so clearly they can play.”
Michigan will be the final home match of the regular season for the Lions and they will recognize their seniors on Sunday for senior day. Though it is the final time they will play at Jeffrey Field during the regular season, Penn State can potentially earn a top seed in the NCAA Playoffs depending how the rest of the regular season and Big Ten tournament goes.
Senior captain Maddy Evans plans for a long road ahead at the Jeff.
“I can’t believe it, my family’s coming up and it will be cool to be honored on Jeffrey,” Evans said. “I’m looking forward to it but at the same time its not real to me yet. Hopefully we’ll be back at NCAAs, in my mind I have a long road here.”