Finally. That has to be the first word that comes to mind for anyone associated with the Texas A&M Soccer program. The Aggies made their 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance this season, winning 30 Tournament games over that span, but Saturday's 2-1 win over Penn State secured the first-ever trip to the College Cup (the NCAA's name for soccer's Final Four) for Coach G Guerrieri and company. A pair of goals from A&M's Allie Bailey sandwiched around a stellar strike by Penn State resulted in jubilation from both players and fans alike.
Saturday's Elite Eight match up with Penn State at Ellis Field got off to a dream start for the Aggies. A&M started the game extremely well, keeping possession and forcing Penn State back into their defensive third. In the 5th minute of the game, Karlie Mueller took a throw-in that found Annie Kunz near the top of the 18-yard box. Kunz turned her defender perfectly, took a touch towards the goal line and played a teasing ball across the face of goal. Kunz' fellow senior Allie Bailey beat her defender to the ball by half a step and was able to poke the cross into the corner of the net.
For the next 30 minutes or so, Penn State took command of the game as they searched for an equalizer. The Nittany Lions were playing with a strong wind at their backs in the first half, and they continually caused problems for A&M's back four by playing balls over the top. The Aggies were in fact outshot by a tally of 11-8 in the first half of play, and goalkeeper Jordan Day was outstanding on numerous occasions to keep Penn State from drawing level. Day was forced to come off her line fairly early in the half to deny a Penn State attack, but there was some controversy involving Day in the 15th minute of the game. A bouncing ball played over the top caught A&M's defense off guard, and one of Penn State's leading scorers, Mallory Weber, found herself faced with a one-on-one with Day just inside the top of the 18. Weber took a touch towards the left of the area in an attempt to round Day, and the A&M goalkeeper slid in hands-first in an effort to thwart the move. As to exactly how much contact Day made with the ball versus with Weber, I can't say for certain - but the Nittany Lions' forward would go down only to see the referee wave play on. From my view, it may have been a bit fortunate for the Aggies to not be facing a penalty and a red card, but it was a bang-bang play and the referee probably wasn't in the best position to make the call.
After escaping that scare, Day would make one of her best saves of the night with just over 15 minutes remaining in the half. Penn State's Salina Williford fired a rocket from outside the 18 that Day went down to her right in an effort to save, but the ball caromed off the post right back to the Nittany Lions' Megan Schafer. A quick shot from Schafer on the rebound appeared destined to beat Day, who was already on the ground after attempting to make the first save, but somehow A&M's senior netminder was able to stretch far to her left and keep the shot out and the Aggies ahead. The Aggies would rebound nicely over the last 10 minutes or so of the first half, creating some very good chances, but ultimately A&M would head to the locker room with the 1-0 advantage.
Despite the teams switching sides after halftime, meaning the Aggies now were attacking with the wind, it was Penn State who created the first quality chance of the second half. It was Weber again going forward who found herself in another extremely favorable attacking position. Weber beat an A&M defender and fired a shot from near the top of the 18 towards Day, who had come out to try and help stop the attack. Day was able to get her gloves on the shot, but it was well-hit and bounced off Day and rolled towards the A&M goal. Fortunately for the Aggies, Day was able to sprint back and just prevent the ball from going into the net. There would be no such fortune in the 53rd minute, though, as Penn State would tie the game at 1. Williford, who saw her shot come off the post in the first half, would take a pass and dribble near the top of the 18. The Aggies didn't close her down quickly enough, and the sophomore midfielder then fired an absolute rocket into the far upper corner of the net. It was an absolutely phenomenal strike that very few goalkeepers in the world would have had any shot at stopping.
The remaining 35-plus minutes of the game would actually be fairly evenly matched, but A&M responded very well to giving up the equalizer. The Aggies continued to create dangerous chances, using the wind to their advantage, and one of those chances would pay off for A&M in the 58th minute. It was another long throw-in by Mueller, this time of the flip variety, towards the penalty area that again would lead to the Aggies' goal. Mueller's throw was flicked towards the 18 off the head of Annie Kunz, and then chipped forward by Shea Groom. Bianca Brinson was going to make a play on the ball in the box, but it bounced over both her and her defender. Bailey was yet again a step faster than her defender and got to the ball just ahead of Penn State's goalkeeper. This time, Bailey would get a touch towards goal that was deflected off a Nittany Lions defender and into the back of the net to restore the A&M lead.
Both teams would have a number of excellent chances as the half wore on. Annie Kunz came close with multiple well-hit strikes from various spots around the top of the 18, and Penn State forced Jordan Day into 5 second half saves. Perhaps the best chance for the Nittany Lions to equalize came in the 74th minute. Weber was yet again involved in the attacking play, receiving a well-played through ball on the right side of the 18 on a Penn State counterattack. She proceeded to cut inside perfectly and fire a shot that Day was able to palm away, but State's Haleigh Echard gathered the rebound about 12 yards out. Echard controlled and fired a low shot that appeared set to beat Day at the near post, but Karlie Mueller was positioned perfectly to clear the ball off the goal line and prevent the equalizer. From there, the Aggies would do a nice job of killing off the game, as Penn State really didn't have any truly dangerous chances over the last 5 minutes of the game.
Standout performances on the evening go to Jordan Day, Mikaela Harvey and obviously Allie Bailey who scored a brace, but a number of other Aggies played extremely well in order to help see A&M through to the College Cup. I would also be remiss if I didn't give a big shoutout to the 12th Man for showing up on Saturday night as well. Student turnout was higher than one might have expected given the Thanksgiving holiday, and there was no doubt that the Bryan/College Station community came out in big numbers to help cheer A&M to a victory. The final attendance was counted at 3,161 and I have to admit it was probably the best soccer atmosphere I've been a part of at Texas A&M. It is undisputed that the team feeds off the energy from the crowd, so it was incredible to see such great support to help the Aggies advance to the next round.
Texas A&M will now make the trip to Boca Raton, host site of the College Cup, where they will face off with the Virginia Cavaliers this Friday at 4pm Central Time. We'll have a full breakdown of what is an extremely good Virginia team here on Good Bull Hunting in a couple days, but it's safe to say that it's going to take a nearly perfect effort by the Aggies to advance to the Championship game. For now, though, savor what is a historic moment for this Texas A&M program and get ready to support the Aggies on Friday!