Duke just ran out of time, figuratively and literally, in the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship.
After the Blue Devils pushed up on offense in desperation trying to find an equalizing goal over the final 15 minutes, Casey Martinez battled for a loose ball along the goal line after her last-minute shot was blocked by a Penn State defender. But the ball went over for a goal kick, and a last-second effort was stopped by an offside flag as No. 3 seed Duke fell to No. 1 seed Penn State 1-0 on Sunday in sun-splashed WakeMed Soccer Park.
A crowd of 10,376 – the second-highest attendance ever for a championship game – saw Penn State senior midfielder Raquel Rodriguez score from six yards on a pass from Mallory Weber in the 72nd minute for the Nittany Lions (22-3-2). The goal gave Penn State its first NCAA championship in five trips to the College Cup.
Duke (14-6-5), which finished only eighth in the ACC regular-season standings, reached its third NCAA final by eliminating a No. 2 seed and two No. 1’s, including 2014 champion Florida State in the College Cup semifinals. Duke has never won a women’s national soccer title.
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“I’m so proud of our team and the heart of our team,” Duke coach Robbie Church said. “What an unbelievable run we’ve been on the last 10 or 11 games.”
“When you get to a national championship game, obviously you never expect it to be easy,” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. “But I thought Duke gave us absolutely everything we could handle today. They came out in the first 20 minutes with the crowd behind them. They put us on our back foot, and we had to struggle through that time and could not find our rhythm.”
Church said Rodriguez made the difference for Penn State, which tied Duke 0-0 early in the season.
“Every game we play against some of the top players in the country,” he said. “She has elevated her game since we saw them the second week of the season. She’s playing at a very high level. Her movement is very hard to track and locate. ... I thought she was as effective against us as any of the top players we’ve played against.”
Rodriguez’s sixth goal of the season came after a turnover by Duke in the midfield. Weber took a pass on the right flank and started to drive on Blue Devils defender Christina Gibbons.
“I started to run at her and heard Rocky screaming in the middle, and when Rocky wants the ball, you give it to her,” Weber said.
Her cross found Rodriguez open on the opposite flank with some space on Duke defender Morgan Reid.
“I did ask for it,” Rodriguez said. “I made a half spin and hit it across.”
Rodriguez is no stranger to big goals. A member of Costa Rica’s national team, she scored the first goal for her country in last summer’s Women’s World Cup against Spain.
“You can’t compare either,” Rodriguez said. “But I can tell you, this was everything I was dreaming of, scoring in the final. The World Cup was great. Right now this was all I was thinking of.”
Duke’s most effective offensive player was sophomore forward Imani Dorsey, who took four of the Blue Devils’ 11 shots and hit the crossbar in the 31st minute. She was also just wide left in the 39th, also from distance.
“I think when I got on the field, my first instinct was to go at the outside back to spark something in our offense,” Dorsey said. “I took some chances like that early in the season and wanted to keep the goalie on her toes. That’s a hard shot to stop.”
“I thought Imani Dorsey was a little bit terrifying today, to be honest,” Walsh said.
Rodriguez, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding offensive player, and Weber were joined on the all-tournament unit by teammates Frannie Crouse, Kaleigh Riehl and Emily Ogle.
Duke’s all-tournament representatives were Toni Payne, Kayla McCoy, Christina Gibbons and EJ Proctor. Florida State landed Cheyna Williams and Megan Connolly on the team. Proctor, Duke’s sophomore goalkeeper, was named the outstanding defensive player after her second four-save effort of the College Cup.
Each team took 11 shots, although Penn State had all five corner kicks as Duke was held without one for only the second time this season. Britt Eckerstrom made three saves for the Nittany Lions.
“I like what we did,” Church added. “We just didn’t have quite enough today.”