If only the day had been a little dryer.
“To start on one field and then finish on an entirely different surface, which is certainly in their favor, is like ‘argh,’ you know?” Michael Moynihan, Northwestern’s head women’s soccer coach, was certainly not alone in his frustration after his team’s eventful 2-1 loss to No. 15 Penn State in the Big Ten Championship game.
“I think if we’re playing outdoors, in those conditions, the game is probably ours, especially with the way we defend,” Moynihan added. “With the type of goals that they scored...I don’t really see them happening with the wet field we played on. But what can you do about Mother Nature?”
After the game — which was moved up by the Big Ten to 10:00 a.m. central on Saturday in order to avoid the storms that were scheduled to hit Indiana — was initially delayed for over two hours despite little to no rain and distant thunder, the Wildcats were able to strike first in the 38th minute. Penn State had controlled the ball for most of the first half at that point, but with no real chances to show for it. As the rain began to come down harder, a counterattack ended in a freshman-to-freshman connection, with Kylie Fisher dropping a perfect cross to trailing Nia Harris, who finished in style:
“I saw [Fisher] going down the line and had to make sure I was in an optimal position,” said the freshman forward from California of her first career goal. “When she played the ball, I saw it, and the ball froze, my eyes slowed down, and I just took a shot. [It was] amazing, the fact that I could do it in the final, too.”
But from there, things started to devolve. The horn signaling a stoppage for weather was immediately blown, the teams and fans evacuated the field, and began to wait. And wait. And wait some more. It was another 2 hours before plans for the game’s remainder crystallized: the teams were going to switch to the indoor field at Grand Park, which is both 3 feet shorter than a regulation field and made out of turf.
Northwestern’s staunch defending kept their advantage intact through the end of the first half and the first 25 minutes of the second half, but Penn State’s constant, threatening possession was taking its toll. The Nittany Lions finally broke through in the 71st minute, when Laura Freigang finished off a beautiful cross from Maddie Elliston for her fifth goal of the season. And just 7 minutes later, a phenomenal strike from Haleigh Echard curled just around the outstretched fingertips of goalkeeper Lauren Clem, giving Penn State a lead they would not relinquish.
The Wildcats fought hard to equalize over the last 12 minutes, but tired legs, both from a long day and a long tournament, and an immensely deep and talented Penn State roster thwarted them at every turn. Coach Moynihan discussed the eventual champions: “Penn State’s a very good team. They’re the best team that we’ve seen. By far the most talented. They’re bringing national team players off the bench (freshman Frankie Tagliaferri has made appearances for the American U20 team while Freigang saw time for their German counterparts, among others)...it’s kind of crazy.”
Regardless, it’s going to be a difficult loss to swallow for Northwestern. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. After a midseason loss to perennial bottom-dweller Illinois, Northwestern was sitting at 6-6-2 overall, with hopes of the NCAA Tournament rapidly fading. But thanks to Clem, along with junior defensive anchors Hannah Davison and Kayla Sharples, the Wildcats rallied, closing the regular season with 4 straight shutout victories, finishing second in the Big Ten in the regular season and reaching a Big Ten Championship for only the second time in program history.
The importance of his team’s strong finish was not lost on Moynihan when he talked to them after the loss: “What I told the team was, one, you gotta give them some credit for the quality they have, but two, you’ve gotta look at all the things that we’ve done to pick ourselves back up from that loss to Illinois...those are the things that we can’t throw out because we’ve lost one game.”
They couldn’t fully close the door, but against a dynamic Penn State squad who had beaten them 3-0 earlier in the year, Northwestern’s defense certainly put up a fight. “Ironically, stepping up faster has helped limit shots and chances from the other team right from the start,” Clem said. “I think today we limited them to just three or four chances, which is huge.” Clem then discussed the team’s resurgences as a whole. “We realized at a point in our season that we needed to step up a little bit...once we got that ball rolling it was easier to keep our momentum going.”
The Wildcats didn’t close the season with the hardware that they dreamed of, but with two years of near-unprecedented success behind them, this team, undoubtedly one of the hottest in the country, is ready to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. With Hannah Davison, Kayla Sharples, and all-Big Ten Tournament midfielder Marisa Viggiano helping the best goalkeeper in Northwestern history lead the way, the Wildcats are hoping to put this strange, yet captivating game firmly in the rearview mirror.
UPDATE: Northwestern will play host to Butler on Sunday at 1 pm in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. If they were to win, they would most likely head to UCLA for Round 2.