SAN DIEGO — It is hard to call a No. 1 seed an underdog.
But some may say that for the No. 1-seeded Penn State women’s soccer team, which was defeated 4-1 yesterday by No. 2-seeded North Carolina in the College Cup national title match.
The Lions were competing in the program’s first-ever national title match and had to go up against a North Carolina team that has been to the championship game 26 of the 31 total College Cup finals and has won now its 22nd national title.
Although Penn State’s resume was stacked, it was going to be a tough feat to take down the dominant Tar Heels. The Lions boasted the best scoring offense in the nation this season, averaging nearly three goals per game with a record of 21-3-2.
The Tar Heels showed the poise of true veterans charging out of the gate, getting on the board in just the second minute of the match. North Carolina’s Satara Murray sent a long ball down the field to Kealia Ohai, who found her way around the Lions’ defense and scored from just inside the 18-yard box with a shot that clipped the bottom of the crossbar to put North Carolina up 1-0.
After surrendering the first goal of the match, the Lions’ defense settled and would not allow a goal the rest of the half. Penn State began the match with three defenders on the back line, but would pull four back in the second half to try to slow down the aggressive offense of the Tar Heels.
“There are just so many weapons that the Carolina team has and they were excellent as usual, but where there’s space, they’re going to track things down and you’re going to give up corners,” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. “That’s part of the three back and that’s a risk that we have to be willing to take.”
Though the opening goal put the momentum in the hands of the Tar Heels, the Penn State offense was still attacking, with Christine Nairn firing off two hard balls and Maya Hayes with a near-miss.
In the 20th minute, Nairn found Taylor Schram breaking down the left side, and Schram caught Tar Heels’ keeper Adelaide Gay off her line to put a ball in the top right corner of the net, tying the game at one apiece.
The score would stay tied for the remainder of the first half, but North Carolina would again control the pace of the offense, outshooting Penn State 9-4 in the half.
Quick scoring right off the bat was the theme for North Carolina all day. The turning point came when UNC’s Hanna Gardner scored off a corner kick just 48 seconds into the second half.
“The story of this game can be told through the timing of these goals,” Walsh said. “When you’ve got the momentum, when the game is starting, when the half is starting you have all these things in front of you and all of a sudden you have a ball in the back of the net that you’re picking out. You’re constantly searching for answers at that point, and that’s what Carolina did to us.”
After that goal, fatigue began to take its toll on the Lions, as they did not record a single shot in the second half until nearly 20 minutes into the period.
The depth of the North Carolina squad is what seemed to take the Lions out of the game, where the Tar Heels used 10 substitutions compared to the Lions’ five.
“It was definitely challenging. Every 15 minutes they would sub a new line,” Schram said. “We had a couple of injuries earlier in the year, so it took away from our depth, so it was tough when you’re playing against fresh legs second game of the weekend. We tried to hang in there.”
Nairn tried to keep Penn State in the game with looks down field to Mallory Weber and Hayes, but was unable to connect.
North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said the depth of his Tar Heels squad is what kept his team in the match and that moving to four defenders on the backline was able to take away the forces of Penn State’s attack.
“When we went in at halftime, I could sense that a lot of the stars for Penn State had played most of the half. I think they left [Christine Nairn] in for the whole first 45,” Dorrance said. “I think there were a couple of factors that helped us; one was we were deeper, we were playing a lot more players, the other thing is what I mentioned earlier. When we took a kid that was a starter and put them back on the field as a reserve player, the other team is thinking they’re going get a bit of a break and you know what, they didn’t, because I thought the reserves played exceptionally well for us.”
The senior leaders of captain Maddy Evans and Nairn are what largely guided Penn State throughout the entirety of the NCAA tournament. Evans said that when she saw the team this summer she knew there was something special that was different than what she had seen in her four years here.
The emotions were running high for the seniors, who had just played their final game in blue and white.
During a postgame interview, Narin nearly broke down at the podium when asked to sum up her Penn State career.
Although the Lions will graduate perhaps two of the best players in the country in Nairn and Evans, Walsh is still hopeful for the future of her Penn State program.
“It’s hard to feel great after a 4-1 loss, especially when you haven’t felt that all season long, but what I said to the team after the match is how proud I am of the work that they’ve put in this season and the leadership presented by our senior class,” Walsh said.
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