Women’s Soccer: Northwestern living on a prayer against Penn State

Callie Counsellor

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In a classic David versus Goliath contest, Northwestern will seek an upset over No. 11 Penn State on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.

The Wildcats finished last in the Big Ten but, as the hosts of the tournament, received a playoff berth as the No. 8 seed. The Nittany Lions secured the top seed with their 14th consecutive Big Ten Championship.

If NU can play the role of David successfully and win three straight games, the Cats will make the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, their next loss will be their final one of the season.

“It’s the postseason so it’s a new start for us,” freshman defender Jackie Alyinovich said, “It’s our chance to make it into the NCAA tournament, so it’s exciting.”

Earlier in the year, Penn State (17-3-0, 10-1-0 Big Ten) overpowered NU (2-15-1, 1-9-1) en route to a 4-0 victory. The Cats will look to that previous matchup in their preparation for Wednesday’s game.

“We definitely have to focus on being more aggressive and closing down the ball early,” senior midfielder Jill Dunn said. “They have some finesse players that can get passes off and get in behind us.”

Sophomore forward Maya Hayes, who leads the Big Ten with 25 goals, is one of those finesse players that NU will struggle to contain. The Cats were unable to handle her in their first matchup, as Hayes torched them for two goals.

“She’s special, she’s fast,” coach Stephanie Foster said. “You need to take away space in behind your backs, which we plan to do. You have to get pressure on her and a lot of her teammates. She’s great with space, so you have to get rid of that for her.”

In addition to Hayes, forward/midfielder Taylor Schram has 12 goals on the season, good for eighth in the Big Ten.

With Hayes and Schram leading the way, the Nittany Lions’ offense leads the conference with 56 goals scored. Penn State has not lost since a 1-0 defeat on Sept. 17 at Wisconsin, outscoring opponents 34-6 during its current unbeaten streak.

The Nittany Lions’ success this year has come as a result of balanced play. They complement their potent offense with a sturdy defense that has allowed a conference-best 16 goals this season.

With solid numbers across the board, Penn State is the favorite to win this year’s tournament. However, despite their 14th straight regular-season title, the Nittany Lions have only won the Big Ten Tournament four times in that 14-year span, leaving the door open for other contenders such as NU.

In order to earn an upset win over Penn State, NU will have to rely on those with Tournament experience to guide the team to victory. Because the Big Ten Tournament was not held in 2009 and 2010, only five members of the team have played in the postseason.

“The only advice I have is just to leave everything on the field,” said Dunn, who played in the 2008 Tournament which was won by the Nittany Lions. “Especially for us because this is our one chance to get into the NCAA tournament. At this point, we have nothing to lose so you just have to bring it and put it all out there on the field and be happy with your performance at the end.”

NU will host the tournament for the first time since its inception in 1994. Foster said that she is glad the tournament will put the spotlight on the NU women’s soccer program.

“It’s a beautiful field and it’s a beautiful setting,” she said. “We’ll put on a great tournament and it’ll be good exposure for our program.”