Back lines front and center for UNC, Penn State
SAN DIEGO -- Down to their last options, two teams found their last lines of defense.
A wealth of attacking talent will be on the field Sunday when No. 1 Penn State plays No. 2 North Carolina (ESPNU, 4 p.m. ET) for the national championship in women's soccer. No team scored more goals this season than Penn State, its lineup led by electric talents such as midfielder Christine Nairn and forwards Maya Hayes and Mallory Weber.
North Carolina, which scored nine goals in one game during the NCAA tournament, can match in kind with youth national team standouts like midfielders Amber Brooks and Crystal Dunn and forwards Summer Green and Kealia Ohai.
That both defenses are the products less of pedigree than pragmatism doesn't mean they are the weak links.
When North Carolina opened its season in Portland, Ore., freshman Hanna Gardner followed the action from campus in Chapel Hill. There was room for only so many people in the traveling party, and the walk-on defender wasn't high enough on the food chain to earn a seat on the plane.
Gardner grew up attending games at North Carolina's Fetzer Field, played club soccer for former Tar Heels legend and current assistant coach Cindy Parlow and turned down scholarship money at other schools to take a chance as a recruited walk-on for her hometown school, but it was apparent she was a long way from seeing the field as her college career began -- 2,347 miles, to be exact.
"It was a bummer," Gardner said. "Coming into it, I don't think anybody really saw me getting any playing time. Obviously, I envisioned myself eventually getting some playing time, but I wasn't sure how much.
"Portland was really like a reality check that it is going to be tough, and I was going to have to battle my way onto the starting roster."
Gardner's big break
Her chance, as is often the case in sports, came at the expense of another's misfortune. Four minutes into the game against Portland, senior defender Megan Brigman broke her leg. With two-time ACC defender of the year Dunn already absent because of the Under-20 Women's World Cup, North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance and longtime chief assistant coach Bill Palladino were left to scour the roster for options.
They alighted on Gardner's name and figured they had nothing to lose by giving her some time in a scrimmage that week. Five minutes in, Dorrance said, the coaches agreed their problem was solved.
Even without the Portland trip, Gardner has played more minutes for the Tar Heels than all but one player. That while adjusting to life in North Carolina's trademark 3-4-3 formation that puts its defenders under tremendous pressure, mentally and physically, to cover extensive territory, maintain a disciplined line and provide support for the other two defenders. In a matter of months, Gardner went from raw to reliable.
"She's just becoming a lot more sophisticated in her shape and also in her responsibility in team defending," Dorrance said.
The coach said he recently told Gardner she could make the next U-20 national team if she put her mind to it.
"I was absolutely serious," he said. "If she decides she wants to be any good at this game, she can be. She's got to commit herself, obviously, between now and when they start looking at those kids for that next World Cup, but I absolutely am convinced this kid can be a legitimate defender at a high level."
Remarkably, three of the four players at the back for North Carolina, defenders Gardner and Caitlin Ball and goalkeeper Adelaide Gay, are walk-ons -- the latter two overcoming even longer odds than Gardner to crack the starting lineup. Their success, particularly once Ball returned from injury for the postseason, allowed the Tar Heels to overcome the loss of Brigman and shift Dunn into the attacking role in which she has thrived throughout the NCAA tournament.
A new tactic
There was no doubt Whitney Church would be in Penn State's starting lineup when the season began, not after a player rated by some recruiting services as one of the 10 best in the country coming out of high school excelled in regular minutes as a freshman for the Nittany Lions a season earlier.
But few would have guessed that starting spot would come on the back line. And nobody could have guessed it would be in a completely foreign formation.
Penn State lost two defenders to injury before the regular season began, leaving coach Erica Walsh short-handed and short on answers. Traditionally a coach who played with four defenders, she took the bold step of adjusting on the fly and implementing a 3-5-2, making Penn State one of the only elite teams other than North Carolina to regularly play with three at the back. And Church, who had never played in a three-back formation, found herself the hub of the new system.
"A little shocked, it was a little unexpected," Church said of her reaction. "But with some injuries that we took in the beginning of the season, it was something that we had to do. If coach wanted to do it, I was going to be there to do it and I was going to do whatever she wanted.
"It was a little shaky at first, when we were first starting to play, but for the most part, I think we've pulled together really well."
In the second week of the season, Penn State took a 3-2 defeat at home against Stanford. Two weeks later, it dropped a 3-1 decision at BYU. The defense was far from a sieve and the record wasn't bad, but it wasn't clear if the Nittany Lions had a defense that could give their all-star attack enough support to consistently beat the elite teams in the championship race.
"We put a lot of responsibility on her shoulders, and after 10 games, there was a glaze across her eyes, and I didn't know if we could restore that normal look of Whit Church," Walsh said. "But she got her feet back underneath her, and she continues to lead through it."
To reach Sunday's final, Penn State eliminated Michigan, Duke and Florida State in succession. For Church, that meant going up against two of the best strikers in the country in Michigan's Nkem Ezurike and Florida State's Tiffany McCarty and a Duke lineup that was fourth in the nation in scoring.
In nearly 300 minutes of soccer, those three teams managed just two goals. McCarty got one of them Friday night, but far more frequent was the sight of Church, on an island, holding her ground and stopping Florida State's All-American in her tracks.
For a collective last-ditch option, Church, Kori Chapic and Bri Hovington ended up playing a big role in getting their team to the final game.
"It's been really hard for our defense, but it's all we had," Walsh said. "We figured we would outscore opponents. We knew we were going to give up goals. And now we're far enough along with our defense that we can shut teams out, good teams out, in a three-back.
"It went from a necessity to a formation that I love and really believe in."