No. 3 seed USC women’s soccer lost an NCAA Tournament instant classic Friday in a penalty shootout to Penn State at McAlister Field. On a day that saw five overtime games and three penalty shootouts across the tournament, the Trojans found themselves on the wrong side of the bedlam in round two for the second time in less than seven months.
USC struggled out of the gate, conceding a shot and two corners while creating none for itself in the game’s opening 20 minutes. Penn State even found the back of the net in the 8th minute, but it was called back for offside.
The run culminated in a 21st-minute goal from PSU redshirt junior forward Ally Schlegel, whose shot bounced out of the hands of USC senior goalkeeper Anna Smith and spilled over the line for the opener.
“It’s tough,” head coach Kediane McAlpine said of the early deficit. “We gave away some soft goals to have to fight back.”
The goal sparked wholesale formation adjustments for USC. Junior Jaelyn Eisenhart moved to left back and freshman Zoe Burns to right back. Freshman Aaliyah Farmer joined freshman Simi Awujo in the holding midfield pivot, moving senior Savannah DeMelo up into attacking midfield.
The Trojans’ first team All-Pac-12 stars shifted as well, with senior forward Penelope Hocking moving out wide and junior attacker Croix Bethune occupying the striker role.
“Because of their three [center] backs, we wanted to have a true center forward,” McAlpine said of the starting lineup. “We wanted to put Penelope there and give her a chance to run at them a little bit. We felt like they would press us a bit, so we knew we would have to relieve pressure in some of those places.”
Even with the adjustments to the setup, it took two moments of individual excellence for USC to ultimately break through Penn State’s low defensive block.
The first came in the 49th minute off the First Team All-Pac-12 right foot of Hocking. The Pac-12 Forward of the Year received the ball out wide, cut back inside to her right foot and fired a strike at the far post to level the game at 1-1.
An instant response just six minutes later from the Nittany Lions allowed them to continue to sit deep defensively. Four shots, four corners and just under 30 minutes later, USC still trailed by a goal when the ball found the feet of freshman forward Simone Jackson.
Jackson took a touch inside and fired a left-footed missile from well outside the box that beat the diving PSU keeper to the far post. With just under five minutes remaining in their season, the Pac-12 All-Freshman standout leveled the match at 2-2 to force overtime.
“Both goals were magnificent,” McAlpine said. “Their goalkeeper played well today. She was on point. To beat her that way was fanatic. This team has always had that fight. We’ve always had that in us.”
USC controlled both overtimes from start to finish, outshooting Penn State 5-0 over the two 10-minute periods. Two of those Trojan attempts came within inches of sending them into the third round.
A frozen rope from the right foot of junior forward Hannah White sailed just over the bar in the 107th. Then in the 110th and final minute of the match, Hocking smashed a first-time shot off a volley that PSU redshirt junior goalkeeper Katherine Asman somehow kept out.
In the shootout, the Trojans had only one spot kick saved, but the Nittany Lions went a perfect 5-for-5 to punch their ticket to the Round of 16 for the fifth consecutive season.
It was a brutal end to one of the most successful seasons in school history.
USC came within just one point of its first ever outright Pac-12 Championship. The Trojans earned their most individual Pac-12 honors ever and set program records with an 11-game winning streak and a 15-game unbeaten run.
USC ends the season 17-3-3, just shy of their all-time mark set in 2018 of 17-2-3.
“I’m disappointed for the team,” McAlpine said. “Any time a season ends, the makeup of the team changes, and this particular group was special. They had to come a long way to get to this point. I’m really proud of them. I’m really proud of the way they grew and learned.”