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Rick Houston | | December 5, 2015

Women's soccer: Penn State vs. Duke makes for unlikely final

  Neither the Nittany Lions or the Blue Devils have won a national title in women's soccer.

CARY, N.C. – Penn State over Duke, Duke over Penn State.

It’s anybody’s guess at this point which team might possibly come out on top of this year’s Women’s College Cup. Penn State made it to Sunday’s finals with a 2-0 victory over Rutgers, while Duke got past defending national champion Florida State by the same score.

Duke and Penn State met earlier this year, and played to a 0-0, double-overtime tie Aug. 28 in University Park. Such meetings usually provide some sort of indication of how things might go in the finals. Who won? That might help, but there’s no such luck here.

August 28, neither team won or lost. That won’t happen Sunday. The NSCAA Coaches Poll has Penn State sixth and Duke twentieth, but the fact is, they’re the last two teams standing. Neither team has ever won a national championship in women’s soccer.

“I thought we really struggled in the first half against them, dealing with a little bit of nerves,” said Robbie Church, Duke’s head coach. “It was our first really big game. I think at that point they were a top-five team in the country. We’re starting to get very familiar with each other.

“They’re a great attacking team. They’ve got some outstanding midfields. I think that’s going to be important to be able to neutralize that group. They’re very, very, very well coached. They’ve had some formation changes. We expect a great game, so we’ve got to push this (win over Florida State) aside and we’ve got to start looking forward now to playing that game.”

After her post game press conference, Penn State head coach Erica Walsh sat just outside the press box intently watching the Duke-Florida State matchup. It would be her last live look at the team – whichever one it might have been at that point – the Nittany Lions would be going up against for the national championship.

“Obviously, we’re going to be studying those little details,” she said. “At this point in the year, with two teams left, it’s all about the little things. It’s all about the details. We’ll be looking for those finer points against a very, very good team.”

Both teams played solid defense in their respective semifinal shutouts, to go along with a stinging attack.

“One of the reasons we can sit back a little bit is our counter-attack,” Church said. “We have dynamic attacking players. It’s very, very tough if you sit back and then you cannot counter. But with the pace of our players and the ability to beat players one on one, it really scares ‘em, especially with teams that open up, very big possession teams.

“We started our year defensively, and our attacking has took a little while to catch up with our defense. Now that is starting to kick in. When Toni (Payne) gets the ball and she’s running at you, oh, wow. I don’t want to be defending on the end of that. We’ve got multiple players who can run at players, so they have to be aware of that. Teams start to hold back a little bit and pull players back. Then, we’ve got some space at midfield to play through.”

The strength of her team, Walsh said, is its across-the-board depth.

“I think that’s one of the things that has made this group so special,” Walsh said. “I do feel like we have twenty-six players with individual strengths and areas of weakness. We’ve been able to kind of combine those and fill in each other’s gaps. This is probably the deepest team I’ve had in my nine years at Penn State.”

Kaleigh Riehl put the finishing touches on Penn State’s victory by collecting a loose ball and putting it in the goal from eighteen yards out midway through the second half. It was the first goal of the freshman defender’s career at Penn State, and also an indication of just how deep the Nittany Lions’ attack happens to be.

“You’ve got different players stepping up at different times,” Walsh continued. “Every time I turn around, it feels like there’s another player scoring for us. You just never know where it’s going to come from. I think that’s one of the reasons this team has been so successful, because you can’t really key in on one player or another. It’s coming from all different areas.”

Duke did not qualify for the NCAA tournament last year, and for a time earlier this season, it appeared all too likely that the school would miss the cut again. A 4-2 loss October 4 to Virginia Tech dropped Duke to 0-2-2 in Atlantic Coast Conference competition, but the team came roaring back to not only make the tournament, but the Women’s College Cup finals.

Even that is a story of perseverance. The team’s first-round victory over James Madison came at home on November 20, with its second- and third-round victories over Florida Gulf Coast and Florida both taking place in Gainesville.

Five days after the win over the Gators, Duke beat Stanford … at Stanford, just about as far from its previous game as it is possible to get and still remain in the continental United States.

“As soon as our year was done in 2014, we started to work toward this,” Church said. “We dreamed a lot about it. We worked hard during the offseason, worked hard during the summer prepping for this. When we were 0-2-2 in the ACC, we were like, ‘Is it going to end up that way again, where we don’t qualify.’ You saw the heart of this team today.”

And we’ll see how that heart plays out for both teams come Sunday.

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