Photo credit: Penn State Women's Soccer on Twitter
There’s probably not a better way to celebrate the end of the Big Ten women’s soccer season than what happened this weekend in Columbus, Ohio. On Thursday and Sunday, the Power Five conference brought four teams from four different states to Ohio’s capital for 10 goals across three matches in two days. Without the Ohio State Buckeyes included, Columbus had more opportunity to leave an impression.
Those impressions were left even before the Big Ten teams stepped onto the field for competition. On Wednesday, the Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Nebraska Cornhuskers and Penn State Nittany Lions were in Columbus to begin Big Ten semifinal preparation.
Both players, coaches and members of the schools had a first chance to step foot onto the home of the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.
That meant teams, who often play on smaller multipurpose fields like Ohio State’s Jessie Owens Memorial Stadium, saw firsthand the state-of-the-art, brand new, Lower.com Field that opened in July 2021. It created moments that will last a lifetime for the students competing.
“Watching the student-athlete’s reaction when they walked into the stadium tells you everything you need to know,” said Penn State head coach Erica Dambach. “The cameras were out, the eyes were wide, they felt special. We feel special.”
Not an easy feat for a coach and program who’ve won 20 conference titles and the 2015 NCAA National Championship. It wasn’t only the Lions feeling what Columbus had to offer.
It stretched to all the universities who came to the Columbus Crew’s Lower.com Field, on Sports Street in the Arena District, along with practices at Historic Crew Stadium and tours of facilities.
sights set on the semis. pic.twitter.com/phpB1Nwcgo— Nebraska Soccer (@NebraskaSoccer) November 2, 2022
Overseas to Columbus
With the teams descending on Columbus, so did fans and parents. For Thursday’s two matches, the attendance mostly consisted of family members connected to the team. Although the crowds were lighter than the Crew are used to having on summer nights, it was a story of quality over quantity.
The Spartans and Cornhuskers began the semifinals, and in the crowd was a unique travel story in Lee Dale. Wednesday night, Dale met his daughter, forward Eleanor Dale for Nebraska. What made it unique was that her dad came in from Billingham, England without her knowing. The story got even better on Thursday.
Michigan State, who entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed after their best season in program history. The Spartans didn’t lose a match in the conference and won their first outright regular season title. They also opened the scoring at Lower.com Field.
With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Dale turned the feelgood story into results on the field. Midfielder Jordan Zade sent a cross into the penalty box and a leaping Dale headed in the match-tying goal. A special memory in a special occasion, as Nebraska fights for a spot in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Nebraska ended up losing 2-1, but it was only the beginning of an eventful two days in Big Ten soccer.
Traveling to Ohio
Elsewhere within the hundreds of fans, who had two nearly perfect days of weather with highs in the uppers 60s and not a drop of rain, there were other student-athletes. In the second match of the day, a 2-0 Penn State win over Northwestern, leading the “We Are” chant was the Penn State field hockey team.
Columbus played double-duty over the weekend, with Ohio State hosting the Big Ten Field Hockey tournament. With the Nittany Lions entering the weekend as a No. 1 seed in field hockey, they had Thursday off and spent it cheering on their classmates to victory.
Sunday, in the tournament finale, the Michigan State rowing team nearly filled a section pulling for the Spartans too. Even if the games are different, the love of the university is the same.
Seeing it All
For teams that won on Thursday, their traveling caravan of family and friends had four days to take in what the city and surrounding areas had to offer. One example of many stories from the weekend was the parents of Penn State’s starting goalkeeper Katherine Asman.
Paul and Jennifer Asman, the keeper’s parents, were used to driving to Ohio from their home in Atlanta, Georgia. Asman’s brother Sam played lacrosse at Denison University, east of Columbus. While they drove to Denison through the years, they never took in Columbus.
With this opportunity and an eight-hour drive from Atlanta, the Asman’s took a more lowkey approach to their trip. It included traveling with their dogs and taking in the trails surrounding the city. Also, they met in the Arena District with other families to spend time together, bringing people from multiple countries and states together.
Penn State’s roster features 11 different states and four countries, with many parents in attendance. On Sunday, they got a show.
Sunday, Michigan and Penn State fans, along with local soccer fans donning both Crew and Ohio State apparel, brought attendance that more than tripled Thursday’s crowd. What followed was a five-goal match with multiple lead changes.
Michigan State fans brought their own banner, called tifos in the soccer supporter world, that stretched over six rows, along with their own supporters’ section. Sparty fans filled the stadium with “Go Green” and responding “Go White” chants throughout the 90 minutes and saw their side go up first.
Unfortunately for the closer East Lansing, Michigan-based crowd, Penn State fought back. The Lions leveled the match, went ahead, and went even again on an amazing goal by Michigan State forward Lauren DeBeau.
With 15 minutes remaining, and the Green & White down a goal, DeBeau dribbled from left to right, parallel to the goal. At the top of the penalty area, DeBeau shot across her body, from right to left, and pinged a goal in off the left post.
Penn State answered back with a header from forward Ally Schlegel. Heralded by Michigan’s coach as the top heading forward in not only the conference but maybe the country, Schlegel showed why with eight minutes remaining. Schlegel jumped to reach a header and put in the match-winning goal, securing Penn State the tournament trophy and an Offensive Player of the Tournament award for herself.
Schlegel’s excitement included the gravity of the surroundings in which she made a career goal.
“This facility, the team feels so blessed to play in a facility like this, two games, there’s nothing like it.” said Schlegel on the field after the tournament victory. “Over the past four days, its felt focused when it needed to be focused and also fun when we’re having fun.”
Now, the teams that competed this weekend look ahead to the NCAA Tournament, either competing or hoping to earn a spot. In Columbus, the soccer doesn’t stop with the Ohio High School Athletic Association holding high school state finals at Lower.com Field Nov. 8 through 12.
Ohio high schoolers will compete and feel the same excitement of playing at a new stadium, like their NCAA counterparts.
“I think yesterday, when we went through the walkthrough, it was a surreal moment. This is a great place and great opportunity,” said Michigan State freshman midfielder Courtney Koehler. “The field conditions you couldn’t ask for a better place to play.”