In mid-October, winning a Big Ten championship didn’t seem like a realistic prospect for a program which has become known for being a perennial national contender.
But the struggles the team faced and overcame over the last three months made it a year that won’t soon be forgotten.
Adversity was the overarching theme of Penn State's season, epitomized by a stretch from mid-September to early October through which the Nittany Lions lost five of seven games, including three consecutive at home — a first in program history.
Penn State’s midseason performance woes presumably resulted from uncontrollable factors such as season-ending injuries to forward Kristin Schnurr, midfielder Shea Moyer and defender Kate Wiesner, which forced Dambach to experiment with her starting lineup before finding a consistently functioning group.
Additionally, 10 of the team’s 25 rostered players were new additions in 2019, a figure that includes nine true freshmen plus Sam Coffey, who transferred from Boston College. Three redshirt freshmen also made their on-field debuts.
As a result, the Nittany Lions’ visible lack of chemistry on the pitch was perhaps a natural result of the mass overhaul of newcomers. However talented a squad it boasted, Penn State was always going to need time to build cohesion and become a finished product.
Toward the end of the season, the previous shortcomings had evidently instilled a sense of character within Penn State’s squad.
From near rock bottom, the Nittany Lions climbed back to finish in fourth place in the Big Ten and earn a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, all highlighted by an 11-game winning streak from Oct. 6 to Nov. 22 through during which they outscored opponents 25-10.
Simply put, Penn State’s resolve was tested, and its players refused to succumb to the weight of the adversity in their path, a sentiment that rang true in Coffey’s postgame comments following a 1-0 defeat to Michigan on Sept. 19.
“We know that all of this, all this adversity that we’re facing... it’s really gonna pay off big time down the road, like we’re really being prepared for something that’s gonna make this seem really, really small,” she said.
In the early going, the Nittany Lions lacked composure, conceding late goals in losses to Stanford, Oklahoma State, Virginia and Rutgers. But by the season’s late stages, Penn State performed at its best when everything was on the line.
With a total of six come-from-behind victories in 2019, the Nittany Lions proved that their struggles had served a purpose.
Three of those wins came in the postseason, most notably the Big Ten Tournament championship match in which Penn State fell behind Michigan 1-0 with eight minutes to play before Frankie Tagliaferri earned a penalty kick at the opposite end just a minute later, which Coffey subsequently converted. The Nittany Lions would secure the trophy in overtime, courtesy of a Payton Linnehan golden goal.
Dambach deemed the reaction from her players in the seconds following Michigan’s go-ahead goal as the defining moment of the season.
“I turned to the staff to start to make changes and I looked back on the field, and our leaders had it under control,” Dambach said. “They’re looking at their teammates in the eyes and there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that that trophy wasn’t coming back to State College. Everything about their body language, their voices and the way they carried themselves instilled confidence in each other, and it was the best leadership moment I’ve seen all season long.”
The Nittany Lions again exhibited their newfound resilience in both the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament in November, as they first came back from 1-0 down at halftime to defeat Stony Brook 3-1 in the opener at home.
A week later, Penn State trailed Arizona twice in the final 30 minutes of play, but miraculously defeated the Wildcats 4-3 thanks to Coffey’s two goals and assist paired with Tagliaferri’s overtime winner.
Its subsequent 2-0 loss to No. 1 seed Stanford in the third round may have closed the book on an unforgettable season, but Penn State proved that despite falling short of expectations, its perseverance had paid off.
“We’ve faced more adversity than arguably any other college soccer team in the country . . . We proved that we’ve become stronger because of all of those things,” Coffey said. “We could have allowed it to defeat us early on in the season, but that’s just not what this team is about.”
It may be that adversity was what this young Penn State team needed. A rather inexperienced group of elite players on a historically dominant team saw its stature challenged and responded accordingly.
The Nittany Lions needed to see their season spiral out of control in order to build the character that defines a great team. Whether it be in the scope of a single game or an entire season, their tenacity shown in the face of daunting circumstances has made the Nittany Lions battle-tested for the future.
Penn State’s 2019 season was neither an astounding success nor a downright failure, but a team that was weighed down by adversity at the beginning of the season became better and learned to thrive in it by the end, which in itself carries an inestimable value.