By Grant Playter | Staff Writer
The wind was whipping through the stands, spectators hooded and huddled as their stomped their feet for the showdown that would determine the game. The TCNJ Lions and Messiah College Falcons had battled in the den of the Lions and come to the end of all allotted time, it was a tie. Per collegiate soccer rules, penalty kicks would decide, who would advance to the Final Four, and who would come up just short.
This would not be the first-time that the Lions faced penalty kicks in the NCAA playoffs. Last year, the No. 23 Brandeis University judges upset the No. 5 Lions in a 1-1 overtime, but won 4-2 in penalty kicks. That painful lesson was in their minds of all the Lions, who experienced it, while the audience waited with bated breath to see if Sunday would be a story of redemption or a repeat of past failures.
“Last year, we were definitely upset during penalty kicks, and I think it’s a feeling that stuck with us,” Kelly Wieczerzak, a defender for the Lions, said. “So we knew then no matter what there was nothing that would stop us from going on to the Final Four.”
The Lions lined up, ready to take the first shot. Christine Levering, one of the team’s most well-known players, took a step back. Taking a stance for her run, she paused for one moment, before rocketing forward and launching the ball past Falcons defender Lydia Ewing.
The Lions had scored the first successful penalty kick. The battle had only begun, however. Could the Lions defend the shot the Falcons had failed to?
The Falcons went up to take their first shot, lining up against Lions goalie Nicole DiPasquale. Saving a goal in a one-on-one penalty kick is one of the most difficult tasks a goalie can be charged with in soccer, and the crowd was on the edge of their seats to see if DiPasquale was up to the task.
The ball is deflected, DiPasquale getting her hands on it just in time. The Lions had taken the lead in penalty shots, and would retain it for the rest of the game. It was almost like clockwork, Lions players taking their shots while DiPasquale attempted incredible save after incredible save, launching herself from side to side through the net.
SWOOSH! SWOOSH! SWOOSH!
And with a shot brought in Haley Bodden, the Lions had advanced through the tiebreaker, outshooting the Falcons 4-1 and earning their spot in the Final Four.
“I don’t think there are words, honestly,” Levering said. “I’m just so ecstatic right now, it hasn’t really hit me yet but I’m just so happy because this team is just different then any team I’ve ever been on so I just know that I have so much confidence going forward.”
When asked what made this team in particular so special, Levering was quick to elaborate.
“I just feel like we’re closer, everyone’s just been on the same page, we want it more than we’ve ever wanted it, we’ve tasted defeat, we know what it’s like,” she said. “We have a chip on our shoulder, this whole season we’ve been kinda proving ourselves why we’re ranked number one in the nation.”
The Lions ultimately saved two kick attempts from the Falcons, failing to lock down a successful kick from Skylar Ulry that tipped just over the hands of DiPasquale. Given that saving a penalty kick is one of the hardest tasks you can charge a goalie with, saving two is already an incredible feat in of itself, but DiPasquale was kick to play down her role.
“That was my role, to save the shots, and then everyone else had their jobs ts well,” DiPasquale said. “It’s pretty exciting that I was able to make those saves, but it doesn’t just go to me. That win it goes to the whole team working their hardest on their field.”
But while DiPasquale pointed to her teammates for recognition, her teammates did the same thing; they were much less shy to heap praise on her.
“I’m so proud of her,” Elizabeth Thoresen said, who made one of the Lions four penalty kicks. “She is so talented, last year she didn’t get much of an opportunity to play because we had another phenomenal keeper, Jessica Weeder, but honestly she earned it.”
The redemption arc for a team that had once been doomed by penalty kicks was evident in all their faces. The chants of “Final Four!” echoed on the field long after the win, and every player interviewed had a giant grin on their face as they related the story of the game.
“It definitely was a little close, a lot of nerves, but sometimes that makes it sweeter when you win in such an epic way as we did,” Jessica Goldman said, who scored the Lions sole goal of the outing. “We ideally don’t want to go to PK’s, but it showed a lot of strength with our team, that we were able to stick through overtime when emotions are running high and get what we deserved.”