It was a match that most expected to turn into a shootout.
The stakes were all there. Pitting the nation’s top offense against the second-ranked offense on the same field with a trip to the College Cup on the line, it was natural to expect plenty of goals to be scored.
However, the outcome all came down to a 14th minute penalty kick by one of the country’s top midfielders. When Penn State senior Christine Nairn buried that shot, it was all the Nittany Lions needed to top Duke 1-0 and book their first College Cup trip since 2005.
“I’ve got so much respect for that Duke team and what they’ve done this season,” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. “Their offense, it felt like they were all over the field, it felt like there were 15 of them at times. Christine said it well, we would bend at times, but we never broke.”
From almost the first touch, the always fickle late-autumn State College weather announced its presence. Pelting Jeffrey Field, which sits in the shadow of Beaver Stadium, with constant wind gusts that topped out just over 20 miles per hour, the weather certainly had an impact on the game. But overcoming the elements is just one part of the game, and Duke wasn’t able to capitalize on the chances it created all night.
The opening stanza of the match played out like two top-tier teams trying to impose themselves while adapting to the conditions.
In the 14th minute, Lions winger Emily Hurd played a cross off the left side to forward Maya Hayes, who then tapped a short pass to Nairn as she moved into the box. Going in to break up the play, Blue Devils defender Nastasha Anasi tripped Nairn, drawing the referee’s whistle and a signal to the spot.
Nairn, the U.S. youth national team player who has been Penn State’s best player this season, stepped up. While the All-American has a long history with penalty kicks, the work her teammates did to put her in that position was behind her as she stepped up.
“I think coach has confidence in me as well as the rest of the team to step up and put it away in big moments,” Nairn said. “Having that support behind me, if I make it or miss it, I know that they want me to be the person to take that shot. They did all the hard work, I just put it in the goal.”
Walsh then dryly told the senior that support system is there “only if you make it.”
Facing Devils keeper Tara Campbell, Nairn’s first step carried her left before she turned back and drove the ball to her right and into the net.
At that point, Penn State’s prerogative changed. With Duke bringing constant pressure, Nairn shifted to left back to relieve the 3-5-2 formation Penn State starts in, changing it to a 4-4-2.
Duke nearly equalized in the 21st minute when Nicole Lipp’s effort struck the crossbar after a nice build-up counterattack off a Lions free kick. But, it proved to be one of a number of Blue Devil chances that failed to find netting.
“I don’t think we could have executed our game plan any better,” Duke coach Robbie Church said. “We created a number of opportunities, but the name of the game is to be able to finish your opportunities and we didn’t do that. It’s a heartbreaking loss for us.”
With about five minutes before the break, Penn State’s formation told the entire story. Starting forwards Hayes and Taylor Schram had moved to the wings, Tani Costa was the lone target player, Nairn, Kori Chapic, Whitney Church and Corey Persson formed the back line, Raquel Rodriguez and Bri Garcia held the central midfield and freshman dynamo Mallory Weber was chasing the ball wherever it went.
After the break, Penn State was able to play with the wind at its back, but the Nittany Lions stayed back, preferring to make their chances out of corners. On the other side, Duke continued to turn up the pressure and seemed to come closer and closer to finding the tying goal.
Cassie Pecht launched a shot that skimmed the outside of the right post in the 57th minute and a few minutes later, Nairn made a phenomenal play, chasing Laura Weinberg from the right wing to the top of the box where she made a clean slide tackle to dispossess the Devils forward.
“We just had a demonstration from Michigan where they did a wonderful job against us and taught us a lesson of how to stick together and bend but not break,” Walsh said. “I think these guys took the lesson and rolled with it. In the first half our marking in the box was a little bit dicey, but in the second half they got a lot better and at the end of the day, if the players aren’t open it doesn’t matter how good the crosses are.”
Injuries knocked Penn State’s projected starting center backs Lexi Marton and Jackie Molinda out for the year in preseason, forcing the team to adjust to a three-back on the fly. For the last month, Nairn has stepped in as a relief defender in a unit that’s given up a fair number of shots, but has allowed just three goals in NCAA play.
Throughout the postgame press conference, the senior continually deflected praise to her teammates, calling Church one of the smartest players on the team, the athletic Chapic as “the muscle” and Persson as a player who’s stepped up off the bench. Backing up that defense has been graduate student Erin McNulty, who has raised her game to another level stemming back to the Big Ten tournament.
Last Sunday, McNulty saved three straight PKs against Michigan as the Nittany Lions advanced in a dramatic 3-2 shootout win, and Friday night, she again answered the call. In the 65th minute, Weinberg fired a shot from distance that McNulty knocked down, but couldn’t cover.
As the ball bounced out, Kim DeCesare came in with a gaping net, but McNulty was able to dive forward and swipe the ball off DeCesare’s foot.
“It’s gotten to the point where it’s just expected,” Walsh said. “She expects it, we expect and this is now her norm. When you talk about Erin McNulty, she’s the best and she’s going to continue to win these games for us, I’ve got all the confidence in the world.”
During Walsh’s six-year tenure at Penn State, the main criticism of the program has been its shortcomings in the NCAA tournament. Now that they’re back in the College Cup, Chapic described it as a feeling of numbness and said it’s an embodiment of all the team’s work since last season’s loss to Wake Forest in the Round of 16 coming together.
While a blustery central Pennsylvania night put a cap on the country’s two best offenses, it was just another challenge for Penn State. Like everything else thrown at them this season, the Nittany Lions simply overcame it.
Next up, Florida State and a chance for the program to get its first College Cup win and play for its first national championship.
“I expected a very good soccer game today and that’s not what I saw,” Walsh said. “I saw a ball in the air, a ball bouncing around. I saw two teams without the ability to really connect passes, but that’s soccer and that’s what you have to embrace. We talked before the game about embracing the challenge and tonight we embraced that challenge.”