As the clock hit zero and the No. 4 Penn State women’s soccer team was named Big Ten Champion for the 15th straight season, very few smiles crossed the faces of the Penn State players.
The Nittany Lions (15-2-1, 9-0-1 Big Ten) tied No. 17 Michigan 1-1 in double overtime (13-3-2, 7-1-2 Big Ten) on senior day. The Wolverines are the first Big Ten opponent the Lions could not earn a win against this season.
“It’s always a team goal of ours over my four years here, but that’s not our only goal now we can check that off and go for the tournament title,” senior Christine Nairn said. “We want to continue to play well together as a team going into the NCAA. I think we showed bits of that during this game; unfortunately we couldn’t put one away, but we’re getting there.”
Michigan showed why they have a conference-leading 11 shutouts this season, frustrating the Lions’ offense and keeping some of their top scorers off of the board.
After a scoreless first half, the Wolverines struck first with a goal on a broken play by senior Nkem Ezurike in the 59th minute. Michigan sophomore Christina Murillo sent a free kick from 40 yards out, to set junior Shelby Chambers-Garcia up for a header, the attempt was deflected and Ezurike caught the rebound to net a goal on the left side.
At 5-foot-5, sophomore Whitney Church had the responsibility of keying in on the towering 5-foot-11 Ezurike. Though she was able to manage one goal, Church shut down a number of opportunities for the forward.
“We talked earlier in the week how she likes to spin people and use her body as leverage to get around,” Church said. “I knew I had to stay within an arms length so she couldn’t spin me. It was just a small tweak in the way we usually defend one-on-one.”
Michigan was able to fend off the Penn State attack for the majority of the second half. The Lions fired off 31 shots with 13 on goal to no avail. Strength in numbers was the game plan of the Wolverines as they were able to fill the box with up to seven defenders at a time when the Lions moved into Michigan territory.
“They were committed to get their body behind the ball, toe poke and put their body in harms way,” coach Erica Walsh said. “They had a real solid game plan. They put a wall in front of their goalie and we couldn’t break it down.”
The Lions found their chance in the 85th minute, with Michigan up 1-0 and time winding down, the offense attacked in desperation.
Nairn sent a shot from the right side that was deflected by Michigan’s goalie Haley Kopmeyer. Schram managed to recover the rebound and sent an off-balance shot off of the post.
This time the ball went to junior Maya Hayes who had the ball deflected in the box, redshirt junior Tani Costa was able to recover the ball a third time and was fouled in the box to set the Lions up for a penalty kick.
On senior day, Walsh looked to her veteran leadership in Nairn to deliver in the closing minutes of regulation. Nairn, who missed a penalty kick early in the season in a loss against Stanford, redeemed herself netting a goal to the left side to tie the match.
“We’ve been practicing all week on our penalty kicks for situations like this,” Nairn said. “You get that gut feeling to just step up and put it away. I have confidence in my team and I think they had confidence in me to step up and take it and I put it exactly where I wanted to.”
Penn State was able to maintain the tie despite a scare at the end of the first overtime period. A Michigan player broke up and streaked down the field to lineup a one-on-one shot when time expired. The Lions did not allow the Wolverines to get into their offense, but couldn’t manage to get past Kopmeyer, who had 12 saves on the day.
“We talk about how every team provides us a different test from game-to-game and this was a unique test,” senior Maddy Evans said. “Their defense was tough, going forward we’re going to see more good teams so this was a good test for us.”
The Lions will close out their regular season schedule on Friday at Purdue. Walsh spoke on how important her team was to clinch at home as they move into the Big Ten and NCAA Playoffs.
“This Big Ten Championship is different because of different expectations in this group,” Walsh said. “This one seems like a stepping stone where as others have felt like an endpoint. These guys are prepared to make the sacrifices to go another six weeks.”
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