For the first time in school history, Texas A&M will host an Elite 8 game at Ellis Field next Saturday evening. It is the fifth time that the Aggies have advanced into the Elite 8, but all 4 of the previous instances required A&M to play a game on the road. Earning the right to host this Elite 8 game was the most important part of earning a #1 seed this season, but both the Aggies and their opponent Penn State had to fight hard against tough opposition to make it to this point.
Aggies Take Down Notre Dame
Texas A&M got off to a great start against the Fighting Irish in Sunday afternoon's contest, getting on the board in the 7th minute of play. Senior Kelley Monogue sent in a corner kick towards a dangerous area that just traveled over the head of Annie Kunz and the outstretched arms of Irish 'keeper Kaela Little. A Notre Dame defender attempted to clear the ball as it was heading towards the goal, but was unable to react quickly enough and could only redirect it into her own net.
After the early goal, both teams looked to settle into the game and find their rhythm. The Aggies would continue pushing forward in search of a second goal and were able to get some shots off, but Notre Dame started to really take over control of the midfield. The Irish did not register their first shot of the game until about the 25th minute, but they did an excellent job in making it difficult for A&M to maintain possession of the ball. As the half started to wind down, the Irish really began pushing forward and had the better of play, but the Aggies were able to get into the locker room with a 1-0 lead at halftime. The teams were level with 7 shots apiece in the first 45 minutes.
The second half started much as the first half ended, with Notre Dame controlling much of the play and A&M having difficulty keeping possession. The Irish went close on a number of chances as the half continued on, forcing a few saves from Jordan Day and some crucial blocks by various Aggie players. The breakthrough finally came for Notre Dame in the 71st minute when Karin Muya, who had been a nightmare for A&M to defend for much of the game, found herself unmarked on a corner kick and calmly slotted the ball home to tie the game.
The equalizer from Notre Dame appeared to provide a spark for the Aggies, who finally were able to get into the game more and create some really dangerous chances. A&M started to hold onto the ball a bit better, with Mikaela Harvey and Stephanie Malherbe both playing exceptionally well in midfield down the stretch. Those two players would in fact play a huge role in the game winner for the Aggies which came in the 82nd minute. Malherbe was strong in midfield to win a 50-50 ball and started making a run forward. Right around midfield she played the ball to Harvey, who hit a perfect return pass as Malherbe continued her run. Malherbe took a touch and played a great ball through looking for Shea Groom. The Irish were able to block that pass, but the attempted clearance fell to Monogue right at the top of the area and she made no mistake, hammering an absolute rocket low inside the near post.
A&M then put on a clinic in how to kill off a game over the last 8 minutes. The Aggies were tremendous in holding possession, finding the corner flag, and not allowing the Irish any clear cut opportunities, with the exception of a solid effort from distance immediately following the goal that Jordan Day kept out nicely. You have to think that the Aggies thought back to the regular season game against South Carolina, in which they were unable to hold a lead and allowed the Gamecocks to equalize with a minute left, and made sure that didn't happen again.
Scouting Penn State
The Nittany Lions come to Ellis Field thanks to a 2-1 victory over a very strong Virginia Tech team on Sunday afternoon. Similar to the A&M game, Penn State gave up an equalizing goal in the second half against the Hokies but they were able to find a winner to advance to the Elite Eight. This will be the 10th Elite Eight appearance in school history for Penn State. That was the 18th consecutive game that Penn State had allowed just 1 goal or less, and in fact they only allowed more than 1 goal on one single occasion this year (a 4-3 win at Duke).
Penn State won the Big Ten regular season, but were eliminated from the conference tournament by Northwestern. They sport a 20-3-0 record, including a 12-1 mark in Big Ten play, and they did not lose a single true road game all year (7-0-0). All three of their losses were of the 1-0 variety - the first against North Carolina in Durham, the second against Rutgers, and the final in the Big Ten Tournament against Northwestern.
As mentioned, Penn State has been excellent defensively this season, allowing just 16 goals while scoring 53 of their own. Redshirt junior goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom sports a 0.60 goals against average, making 60 saves in over 1900 minutes of action. The Nittany Lions' defense is anchored by senior Whitney Church, who also has a goal and an assist of her own. The scoring for the Penn State is pretty spread out across a number of players, but freshman forward Frannie Crouse leads the way with 10 goals on the year. Junior forward Mallory Weber is responsible for 8 goals and 6 assists, including the game winner on Sunday against Virginia Tech, and another freshman forward Megan Schafer has 6 goals and 6 assists. Redshirt senior midfielder Emily Hurd leads the team in assists on the season with 8. Also keep an eye on junior Raquel Rodriguez, from San Jose, Costa Rica, who scored the first goal in Penn State's Sweet 16 win.
Expect for this game between the Aggies and Nittany Lions to be a low-scoring, tightly contested affair - similar to the games that both teams played in the Sweet 16. There is no doubt in my mind that this senior class for A&M will come out extremely hungry to make their mark in program history and do something no other A&M team has done before by advancing to the College Cup. Penn State will most certainly provide some extremely formidable competition, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the Aggies are able to test a stout Nittany Lions' defense.
The Elite 8 game will be played at 7:00pm on Saturday evening at Ellis Field. The two games last weekend were some of the best atmospheres I have been a part of in Aggieland, and the A&M players absolutely feed off that energy from the crowd. There is no doubt that Aggieland is the best collegiate soccer environment in the country. Once again, the Aggie Soccer Club has generously stepped up to cover the cost of admission for all A&M students, so an A&M student ID will get you into this game for FREE. The Penn State players talked after their Sweet 16 game about how nice it was to have the support of their home fans, and they had a crowd of 652. Ellis Field had over 2200 fans in attendance on Sunday against Notre Dame, so I certainly hope that the 12th Man comes out in force to help this team advance to the College Cup! BTHO Penn State!