A Defining Dynasty: PSU Soccer Posts Nine-Straight Big Ten Titles to Date
Oct. 23, 2006
A dynasty, defined by Webster, is a succession of rulers of the same line of descent, or a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.
Behold Penn State women's soccer.
Since 1994, when women's soccer was incorporated into the Big Ten, Penn State has dominated both the conference and national scene. This past Sunday (Oct. 22), the Nittany Lions earned their 100th Big Ten victory in 119 games, which brings their total conference mark to 100-12-7. They have won 87 percent of their Big Ten contests over the 13-year span.
As for Big Ten Championships, Penn State earned its first in 1998 and has not stopped winning since. Sunday's victory over Wisconsin earned the Nittany Lions at least a share of their ninth-consecutive conference title - a streak which is tied (Indiana tennis, 1987-95) for the second-longest of any women's sport in Big Ten history. Two more will prompt a new meaning to the term "toe ring."
The one constant throughout, the one person that has played a significant role in Penn State's success since 1994, is current head coach Paula Wilkins. Prior to this season, Wilkins mentored one National Player of the Year award winner, eight All-Americans, 34 first-team All-Big Ten honorees and 111 Academic All-Big Ten selections. She has coached two-time College Scholar Athlete of the Year Joanna Lohman and Big Ten Suzy Favor Athlete of the Year award winners Christie Welsh and Tiffany Weimer.
Wilkins, who studied as a seven-year assistant under Patrick Farmer before taking over as the head coach in Happy Valley in 2001, notes that it was her predecessor's vision that has enabled Penn State to continue a championship-caliber program.
"Our success began with the vision of Pat Farmer," noted Wilkins. "He put an emphasis on winning the Big Ten Championship, because he felt if we did that, it would put us in position to compete nationally. He always thought the conference championship was the hardest to win, because the season was 10 games long, you played tough home and away schedules, and had to deal with injuries and illness. We have tried to maintain that thinking today."
And they have. In fact, when Welsh, who played in State College from 1999-2002, was asked about her experiences competing in the Big Ten, the decorated star unknowingly and eerily echoed Wilkins comments.
"Pat Farmer made it obvious to the team that winning the Big Ten Championship was the team's first and most important goal," Welsh said. "Winning the title over time is so significant because of the amount of injuries you go through over 10 games and the fact that you are playing tough home and away games in this hard-nosed conference."
Welsh is perhaps the most-decorated women's soccer player in Big Ten history as she earned the conference's Freshman of the Year honor in 1999 and the Player of the Year award in 1999, 2000 and 2001. The four-time All-Conference honoree also earned the prestigious Hermann Trophy as the nation's top player in 2001 and was named the Big Ten Suzy Favor Female Athlete of the Year in the spring of 2002.
Just the thought of winning those awards still gets Welsh excited to this day, especially the Suzy Favor award, which she notes is "very special" to her since the honor is given to the top female athlete in the conference. Welsh, who serves as both Penn State's and the women's soccer spokesperson for the Big Ten's 25th Anniversary of Women's Championships campaign, points to her team's success, not hers, that helped her candidacy for the postseason conference and national accolades.
"For me as a player, losing was never an option," she said. "But that attitude stemmed from Paula and the culture surrounding the team. There is definitely the `must win' feeling. Even when we tied a game it felt like a loss and we consider it one as well. We wanted to go undefeated in every game of every season at Penn State. Winning every game was not expected, but in the back of all of our minds, we felt that we were going to win each game. We had our losses and we took them hard and seriously. But we also learned from them and vowed to never make it a habit."
Lohman, who was also a heralded Penn State standout and a runner-up for the renamed M.A.C. Hermann Trophy in 2004, agrees with Welsh's perspective on the culture and notes the program's tradition is what keeps the focus on winning.
"There is a `must win' culture now because the winning tradition has been around for some time," Lohman said. "When I played, we focused on winning and defending our home field and I think I only lost once at home during my career. We were always looking to win the game and never thought we would lose."
Lohman's success on the field was a byproduct of her success in the classroom. A four-time All-Big Ten honoree, she joins fellow Nittany Lions Welsh and Rachel Hoffman (1994-97) along with Minnesota's Jennifer McElmury (1994-97) as the only four women's soccer players to ever receive All-Conference honors in each of their four seasons. The Big Ten's Freshman of the Year in 2000 and Player of the Year in 2003, Lohman was also the NSCAA/adidas College Scholar Athlete of the Year in 2002 and 2003, which marked the first time ever that a male or female player won the award in consecutive years. She was also named the first three-time CoSIDA Academic All-American and would go on to receive one of the NCAA's coveted postgraduate scholarships.
"It's hard to make a living as a soccer player, unless you're one of the top players in the world," said Lohman. "I have always enjoyed school, going to class and reading. For me, it was study and do your work first, which meant soccer was always second. I was brought up on that by my parents and it was the same way with the coaches at school."
Despite the accomplishments Lohman endured during her career, the former star talks eloquently about while winning was often the focus, the emphasis was always put on academics and personal development.A dynasty, defined by Webster, is a succession of rulers of the same line of descent, or a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.
"Paula has been there since the program began," she said. "The program has its focus on winning, but she has always stressed the importance of playing the kind of the soccer that we play and developing us as players and people. She wants to see you get better as a person and help you grow throughout your four years at Penn State."
A firm believer in the popular Happy Valley catchphrase, "We are...Penn State," Wilkins agrees with Lohman and notes that the team's mantra has also been influenced by the leadership of Nittany Lion football head coach Joe Paterno.
"Penn State has always had that mantra of being blue-collar on the field and fighting for every inch. That starts here with Joe Paterno," said Wilkins. "Our mantra is to be successful on the field, but also for each of our players to grow into that powerful woman who will soon sit in a business meeting and say `this is what we are going to do.'"
In recent years, the passing of the Nittany Lion torch landed with Weimer, the 2002 Freshman of the Year and 2004 and 2005 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. A two-time runner-up for the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy, Weimer eclipsed Welsh's scoring records and established the Big Ten single-season scoring mark (32 goals in 2005) and finished with 91 for her career, which is also an all-time conference best. In 2005, she earned a share of the NCAA record for consecutive games with a goal, having scored in 17 straight contests. Following her career, she joined Welsh in the spring of 2006 as the only two soccer players to ever receive the conference's Suzy Favor award.
"It was a huge honor," Weimer said of winning the award as the conference top female athlete. "The Big Ten is such a prestigious conference - either you want to be in it or play against it."
Weimer finished her career at Penn State leading the 2005 squad to the best season in school history. The Nittany Lions went an unbeaten 23-0-2, finishing the year with their third College Cup appearance and a program-best No. 2 final ranking. For three weeks during the regular season, Penn State was ranked No. 1.
"There are expectations to win every year, but last season was different," recalled Weimer. "We were unbeaten, ranked number one and advanced to the College Cup. We finally realized what it was like to be on top."
Unfortunately, the one thing missing from a perfect season was a national championship. After battling 110 scoreless minutes against No. 1 Portland in the national final, Penn State suffered a 4-3 setback in penalty kicks. The draw ended the Nittany Lions' historic season one game short of the ultimate goal.
"I sat down with (current senior midfielder) Heather Tomko after the regular-season loss to Illinois and she was so distraught," Welsh said. "This team does not want to be the team that snaps the (consecutive championships) streak. I talked to the alumni about this as well and we all agree that this particular team would not have let us down even if the streak had ended. (The alums) look at the teams now and expect them to work hard, work together, and have that typical Penn State blue-collar mentality. Do we want to keep winning? Of course. We all hope the streak continues, but as I told Heather, if they are giving it their all and playing the right way, they could never let us down."
Eligibility exhausted but leaders they remain.
It's that unity, the bond, the special relationship that former players have with the current ones that continues to make Wilkins so proud. That's why you'll never see names on the back of their jerseys or standouts like Lohman, Weimer and Welsh overshadowing the players receiving less public notoriety. In fact, it is the latter group that Wilkins refers to as the backbone of the program.
After Sunday's win over Northwestern, Wilkins can stop looking for a while.
A succession of rulers of the same line of descent?
They are...Penn State.