Women's Soccer, Stanford, Team

Penn State Women’s Soccer huddles before the match against No. 3 Stanford on Friday, August 23, 2019 at Jeffrey Field.

It seems unfair and almost disingenuous to boil the success of a program like Erica Dambach's down to three simple, cookie-cutter phrases.

To do that seemingly takes the nuance and the allure out of a team which has won nine Big Ten championships and one NCAA title in Dambach's 13 seasons at the helm — and the skill it takes to accomplish those feats.

And yet Dambach has no problem sharing those three phrases that she believes have been integral to her success thus far at Penn State: attitude of a champion, blue collar and united family.

Dambach knows on their own, they're just words without much meaning or gravity or importance behind them.

But when put into practice, those three phrases instead become pillars and guiding principles for Dambach and her squad to abide by.

"Obviously those are words, but it's got to become a living, breathing part of your culture," Dambach said.

By her own admission though, it took her some time to get those pillars in place to a point where they became synonymous with the Nittany Lions' brand of soccer.

The program already had a vision and identity when Dambach took over in 2007, but no explicit pillars or guiding principles had been set.

Women's Soccer, Stanford, Team

Penn State Women’s Soccer huddles before the match against No. 3 Stanford on Friday, August 23, 2019 at Jeffrey Field.

Those became relevant seven years later.

"When I first arrived those did not exist. Obviously Penn State as a university has a wonderful culture and I wanted to feel that and breathe that for a while. I didn't take the approach of 'I've got to do this right now,'" Dambach said. "It wasn't until 2014 that those pillars really came into their own and really started to become a living, breathing part of our culture. From there, each year we define them based on the different characteristics of that team and for them to make them their own."

Maybe it's the implementation of those core tenets that have led the Nittany Lions to an 89-24-11 record with three Big Ten titles and the program’s sole NCAA championship in that span.

Maybe it's a combination of factors, but it's clear the pillars have been integral to Penn State's success in some capacity over the last five years.

Dambach's players also say it's those pillars — and their ability to permeate every aspect of Penn State women's soccer — which make what the Nittany Lions do so marketable to recruits and one of the preeminent teams in college soccer.

"I think we spend a ton of time defining those things [pillars]. Through everyone getting on the same page and understanding what that means to us, it's way easier for us to sell it," redshirt freshman Ally Schlegel said. "I think for us, we have such a good culture, it's really easy for us to get our freshmen to buy in."

Women's Soccer, Bowling Green, Team Celebration

Penn State women's soccer celebrate scoring during the NCAA tournament first round game against Bowling Green at Jeffrey Field on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. The Nittany Lions defeat Bowling Green 4-1 and advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The pillars and their meaning for each player are open to interpretation and subjectivity, but it's also clear that arbitrary pillars aren't wholly necessary for success or being bought into what Penn State is doing.

Ali Krieger and Alyssa Naeher, both Penn State alumni and members of this year's United States Women's National Team's World Cup winning squad, played for the Nittany Lions and didn't always have these pillars to follow.

Still though, Dambach said when the former Nittany Lions helped the U.S. capture a World Cup, she was proud not just of the accomplishment, but of their continued connection to their roots.

"Certainly we took a lot of pride in it as a program. One of the most special parts of those two in particular, Ali Krieger and Alyssa Naeher, is their strong connection with Penn State," Dambach said. "Not only were we proud of their success but we're also proud of the way they continue to be great role models for our players and our students at Penn State. These guys want to continue to be a part of our program."

Those pillar-less Dambach squads are a thing of the past and though they worked well, with their recent emergence and subsequent success, it seems hard to envision a scenario in which their implementation has been anything but a catalyst for success.

"A lot of people think we just spend time on the field watching field as a team with our coaches, but our coaches do a great job at looking at the little things that other programs might not look at," last year's co-leading scorer and junior midfielder/forward Frankie Tagliaferri said. "That's the mental piece and we spend a lot of time with that and our pillars and I think that's a huge part of who we are."

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