Penn State women's soccer team faces best in College Cup
The NCAA women's College Cup is not a place for Cinderellas.
Soccer's version of the Final Four is reserved for the blue bloods of the sport, and four will gather this weekend in San Diego.
Top seeds Penn State and Florida State meet at 8:30 p.m. Friday, and defending national champion Stanford takes on 20-time national champion North Carolina at 11 p.m. The title game is 4 p.m. Sunday.
The Nittany Lions (20-3-2) are making their 18th straight NCAA Tournament appearance, but they're looking for their first national title.
“It's something we've talked about since the spring,” said junior Maya Hayes, the two-time Big Ten Forward of the Year. “It would mean everything to go out and do it. It's what we've worked all these years for.”
It's no coincidence that two of the final four teams are from the ACC. Long considered the best conference in women's soccer, the ACC sent nine of its 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament. Penn State already has knocked off two — Duke and Boston College.
FSU (20-3), which won the conference, is making its second straight College Cup appearance.
“In the ACC, you need great athletes who are also soccer players,” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. “There's only a handful of them. (Florida State) has a bunch. We have a bunch. There are only about 10 programs in the nation that have them.”
Penn State and Florida State have other things in common. Goalie Erin McNulty played two years for the Seminoles before coming to Penn State as a graduate student. Walsh served as an assistant under FSU coach Mark Krikorian in 2005, and she calls him a mentor. The two also worked together on the U.S. Under-19 team in 2004.
“I can tell you I learned a lot from her,” Krikorian said, “and I've incorporated those things — collective defending, off-field player management.
“She's one of the brightest coaches I've been around. She's done a great job building (Penn State) into one of the top programs in the nation.”
Krikorian said the thing that concerns him most about the Nittany Lions is their transition attack, which has helped them average a nation-leading 2.92 goals per game. Senior midfielder Christine Nairn (16 goals, 11 assists) and Hayes (15 goals, six assists) lead the way, and both are among the 15 semifinalists for the Hermann Trophy.
“When we're firing on all cylinders,” Walsh said, “we're a team that can win a national championship.”
Jeff Vella is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.