MIDDLETOWN, Pa. – In an instant, a team can define its season or succumb to outside perception. It takes just one moment for a group of players to flip the script or pack it in. In a matter of seconds, a squad can show you its heart or flaunt its lack thereof.
From the minute the final horn sounded the end of the team's first scrimmage this fall, Penn State Harrisburg has been decimated by injury. When the pages of the calendar changed from September to October, the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) made it known that it would not go easy on the league's latest newcomer.
Stuck in the midst of a scoreless, six-game losing streak, the Lions could have rolled over against a familiar foe that ended their conference championship hopes two years running and not many would have batted an eye. Instead, the ladies rose from the depths of their recent skid and rallied around a common goal, the common goal – victory.
On Tuesday night, Oct. 15, Penn State Harrisburg worked and worked and worked until the Lions dispatched of defending North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) champion and former league rival Lancaster Bible 2-1 in a double overtime heart-stopper in front of their hometown fans.
The Chargers (9-5, 6-2 NEAC) ended the Blue & White's season each of the past two years, besting the Lions in the NEAC postseason tournament in 2011 and 2012 en route to back-to-back NCAA Division III championship tournament appearances. But the win over Lancaster Bible wasn't about exorcising demons; it was about proving that regardless of record or circumstance, Penn State Harrisburg (6-8, 0-4 CAC) still has a lot left to play for.
Sophomore Fay Ansary (Hummelstown, Pa. / Hershey) scored both Blue & White goals, including her third game-winner of 2013. Impressive as her team-leading eight scores have been to this point in the fall, none were bigger than the one that came 106 minutes into Tuesday's match. With just under four minutes left in the second extra session, fellow sophomore Mae-Lynn Gonzalez (Blakeslee, Pa. / Pocono Mountain West) put a ball where only Ansary could run it down just outside Lancaster Bible's 18-yard box. The speedy forward beat Kaitlyn Scheuing to the ball and chipped her shot over the outstretched arms of the diving goalkeeper and into the back of the net, prompting a joyous Lions' dog pile near midfield.
Ansary's first goal of the evening came just 10:29 into the contest when junior Hannah Jorich (Middletown, Pa. / Middletown Area) found her on the other end of a long, accurate pass that deflected off a Charger's foot and bounced nine feet in the air before being gathered in stride and struck past Scheuing.
Trailing early, Lancaster Bible answered back in the match's 34th minute when Kirsten Webster took advantage of a bad hop in the form of a loose ball that bounced awkwardly over the foot of sophomore Rachel Shetler (Pequea, Pa. / Penn Manor) in the Penn State Harrisburg box. Webster put her shot past junior goalkeeper Mackenzie Gates (Harrisburg, Pa. / Central Dauphin) and knotted the score, helping to slow the Lions' momentum heading into halftime.
Following the break, Gates, Shetler and the rest of the Penn State Harrisburg back line more than made up for the defense's lone mistake. Senior Kara Hoy's (Camp Hill, Pa. / Camp Hill) well-timed clearing shifted fields on numerous occasions, freshman Nicole Horst (Mt. Pleasant Mills, Pa. / Midd-West) played one of the best games of her young career in the back, freshman Nicole Luttrell (Hershey, Pa. / Hershey) battled back from a second half ankle injury and Shetler made a breakaway goal-saving play by sliding and winning a ball deep in Lion territory late in regulation.
And then there was Gates. The captain made eight saves on the night, including three in overtime, to increase her CAC-leading total to 118. In the first OT, the keeper took a hard shot to the abdomen but refused to leave the game. Her gritty performance set the tone heading into the final ten minute period.
That final session showcased the Lions at their best; not just on the night but the month and a half that preceded it. With over 100 minutes of hard-fought soccer behind them, an unfortunate break being the catalyst that led to Lancaster Bible's lone score and a two-week stretch of subpar soccer fresh on their minds, it would have understandable if the injury-ravaged ladies simply played for a draw. Instead, they played for each other and earned the win they deserved.
There were plenty of highlights from the Lions' 106:08 thriller on Tuesday night. There was Gates' gutsy effort and Hoy's quick decision making. There was Shetler's resiliency and Jorich's ability to be everywhere at once. There was Ansary's walkoff score and head coach Adam Clay's refusal to accept complacency once fatigue set in. There was the freshman class, ignoring the high-pressure situations and playing like veterans and the team's postgame pileup that filled the night air with shouts of joy.
And yet, any of those moments without the others is just a fleeting moment. One strong performance without another is simply a nice individual outing. But as smaller pieces of a larger whole, they combined to create the first walkoff overtime victory in program history; a win that will be remembered for years to come.
The heart-pounding victory over Lancaster Bible was but a chapter in the book of Penn State Harrisburg's 2013 season. The story had taken a turn for the worse over the past few weeks. On Tuesday night, the Lions injected it with an electrifying plot twist. The message was delivered to the doubters loud and clear: work hard in hopes of achieving a common goal, ignore the noise from the outside world and play for each other. If the Lions continue to do these things like they did in their most recent outing, they can continue flipping the script until the scene fades to black.
After pulling together and earning a win like the one over the Chargers Tuesday evening, one thing is certain. The only ones truly capable of defining their season are the ladies of the 2013 Penn State Harrisburg women's soccer team.
*Video courtesy of Penn State Harrisburg public address announcer Jason Noll