Penn State may have all the confidence in the world after 5-0 and 2-0 wins over Alabama State and Vanderbilt to begin its NCAA Tournament run, but its biggest challenge still looms.
Up next in the Sweet 16, the Nittany Lions will take on No. 1 Florida State in Cary, North Carolina, Wednesday May 5 at 3 p.m.
As the Seminoles are on the heels of a 3-0 win over Milwaukee in which they did not concede even a single shot to their opponents, the matchup with Penn State will be their second of the tournament due to a first-round bye.
The contest undoubtedly figures among the more intriguing Sweet-16 matchups due to the showdown between midfielders Jaelin Howell and Sam Coffey, who are currently ranked as TopDrawerSoccer’s top two players in the nation.
Howell, who in just her junior year at Florida State and has already earned two caps for the United States women’s senior national team, scored her fifth goal of the 2020-21 season in the win over Milwaukee Saturday.
Coffey expressed her enthusiasm at the chance to go head-to-head with Howell, who she considers a first-rate opponent and friend.
“I love it, I cannot wait,” Coffey said. “I know Jae from camps and different stuff with U.S. Soccer and she’s awesome. Incredible player, great person, personally a friend of mine and she’s had nothing but success at Florida State, which is so great. I can’t wait to go up and match against her and it’s going to be a competitive battle.”
The Nittany Lions’ 12-2-1 overall record this season ranks among the best in the country, but it can hardly match that of Florida State, who boasts a perfect 12-0-0 record.
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However, a significant factor to consider going into Wednesday’s affair is the two sides’ disparity in recent competition.
While the Nittany Lions are fresh off the Big Ten’s 11-game spring regular season, Florida State has not played a competitive match since November, as the ACC opted to hold its season in the fall.
Nonetheless, the forthcoming battle can be considered a matchup of two heavyweights looking to once again secure hardware on the national stage, considering Penn State’s 2015 national championship and Florida State’s 2014 and 2018 NCAA titles.
Both teams won their respective conference’s regular season title, yet only the Seminoles can call themselves conference tournament champions, as Penn State fell in the semifinals of the Big Ten’s postseason competition.
While coach Erica Dambach admitted her team has yet to dial in on a strategy to defeat the Seminoles, she stressed the importance of controlling the flow of play through possession.
“I think we’re gonna have to figure out how to keep the ball against them,” Dambach said. “We're gonna have to figure out defensively how to keep them at bay but keep ourselves close enough together that when we win it, we're gonna be able to keep possession.”
It’s also worth noting that the last three national champions—Stanford in 2019 and 2017 and Florida State in 2018—all defeated Penn State on the road to the title.
If the Seminoles triumph over the Nittany Lions Wednesday, they will be the clear favorites to lift the trophy May 17 in Cary.
But history has done little to faze Coffey and her squad, as the senior captain addressed Penn State’s confidence level in the face of the country’s highest-ranked side.
“We’re giving it everything and we’re not going to back down,” she said. “We’re not gonna go into the game tight or scared, or afraid of the one seed. We’ve got no fear at all. We are super confident that we can do this.”