A Look At What Shapes Up To Be A Battle Between Two Very Deserving Teams. By Sarah Sparkman
Penn State (16-2-4) vs Clemson (17-3-4) – Saturday
A Penn State team that has punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for 29 straight seasons played their way into the Elite Eight this year for the first time since 2018 with a 7-0 win over Central Connecticut State, a 2-0 win over Santa Clara and a 4-3 win in overtime against Saint Louis.
This is a veteran Nittany Lion team that has been in the hunt to win every game they have played so far. A balanced Penn State attack led by forwards Payton Linnehan (10g, 4a) and Kaitlny MacBean (9g, 6a) averages a healthy 2.36 goals per game while an experienced Nittany Lion defense anchored in goal by graduate student Katherine Asman who has a 0.58 goals against average has allowed only 13 goals.
Center back Cori Dyke, the Big Ten Defender of the Year and a four-year starter, seniors Kate Wiesner, Ellie Wheeler and Michela Agresti and junior Mieke Schiemann along with senior holding midfielder Eva Alonzo (1g, 7a) round out a team oriented Nittany Lion defense that can hold their own with anyone.
Clemson – The Tigers are making their tenth-straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. They played their way into the Elite Eight with wins at home over Radford 2-0, Columbia 2-1 and advanced past Georgia in a match determined by a penalty kick shootout out after the contest was tied 1-1 at the end of 110 minutes of play.
Clemson has a balanced attack with several capable finishers who have big play ability. Senior defender Makenna Morris (9g, 6a), a four-year starter, graduate student forward Caroline Conti (7g, 4a), a four-year starter, junior forward Renee Lyles (6g, 5a), senior midfielder Megan Bornkamp (5g, 7a), a four-year starter, freshman midfielder Dani Davis (1g, 8a), and graduate student Sami Meredith (6g, 2a) are among those who add punch to a Tiger attack that averages 2.25 goals per game.
Graduate Hale Mackiewicz, the ACC Goalkeeper of the Year, anchors a Clemson defense along with a Tiger backline that includes Makenna Morris, graduate student Harper White, a four-year starter, and junior Mackenzie Duff that sports a 0.67 goals against average and has recorded 14 shutouts.
The Bottom Line – This is the time of the season when the potential exists for mental and physical fatigue to take a toll on a team. Penn State is coming off a difficult 4-3 win in overtime against Saint Louis. Clemson is coming off a contest with Georgia that required penalty kicks to determine a winner. Both sides have grit but stamina will likely have an impact on this one as the contest progresses.
These two teams matchup well with each other across the board which usually produces a game with momentum swings. This game is going to come down to which side is able to put in a full 90 or more minutes of play. In other words, a two goal lead is not insurmountable in this one.
Look for it to be a physical game. Both teams have outstanding goalkeepers and battle tested backlines. You can count on the play of Penn State center back Cori Dyke and holding midfielder Eva Alonzo and Clemson midfielders Hal Hershfelt and Megan Bornkamp factoring into the outcome.
Give Clemson the home field advantage, the Nittany Lions have the edge up-top, give Clemson the advantage in the midfield, give Penn State the edge in the back, and call it even in goal. Things tend to tighten up on both sides of the ball with so much on the line. It is too late in the season for Clemson head coach Eddie Radnanski or Penn State head coach Erica Dambach to make major changes so much depends on which team is able to settle in and do the things well that have worked well for them throughout the season.
This one could go either way.
Sarah Sparkman is a contributing writer for College Soccer News covering women’s soccer.