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Naomi Girma and defense shut down Penn State in Sweet 16

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On Sunday, another team in the Cardinal’s path discovered how difficult it is to win a game without the ball. The Nittany Lions 2019 season was cut short in the third round of the NCAA tournament by the same side that handed them a loss in the season opener.

Junior midfielder Catarina Macario took advantage of the one time the defense sagged off and allowed her space for the 30th goal of her campaign in the first half. Doubling the lead, freshman midfielder Maya Doms benefited from a deflection that sent Penn State goalkeeper Amanda Dennis sprawled in the wrong direction.

In the end, No. 1 Stanford (21-1, 11-0 Pac-12) was able to toy with Penn State (17-7-1, 8-3 Big Ten) in the Sweet 16 to see out the 2-0 victory with the ball always at their own feet. The home side dictated the run of play with a 35-1 advantage in shots that only begins to do justice to their dominance.

Penn State saw its path to advancing as limiting the impact of Macario and forcing Stanford to shoot from distance. While the Nittany Lions were successful in that the majority of the Cardinal’s 35 shots came from distance, that tally includes both goals.

“We gave away chances, but many of their chances were from deeper positions and a lot of shots from outside the 18,” Penn State head coach Erica Dambach said. “That was our hope, to frustrate them enough and cause them to take those shots from those spaces and then be able to catch them on the counter.”

In deciding to sit back, Penn State allowed Stanford to dictate the style of play. As usual, Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe decided that would be possession-based, methodical and grueling. 

“In practice and going into games we preach our defense,” sophomore defender Naomi Girma said. “We know that if we’re able to not let them have the ball and we possess the ball, then we’re going to have the most chances.

“The best defending is keeping the ball” Girma added. “That showed in this game, not letting them have the ball and if they did win it, winning it back within five seconds, just like not letting them breathe. We had so much respect for Penn State and we came in wanting to give our best performance.”

“Not only were they good with their mentality, closing down spaces but also their possession,” Ratcliffe said. “Their decision making out of the back was extraordinary. And Naomi was a big part of that as a leader on the team.”

At the half hour mark, it was Macario sprinting forward with the ball at her feet towards the back four of the Nittany Lions. None of the defenders stepped to close down the space in front of the reigning Hermann Trophy winner, Macario took a crack from beyond the area, and Stanford went on top 1-0. 

“From Catarina’s goal, if you give time and space to really good players, they’ll score goals from outside the box,” Ratcliffe said. 

Macario scored twice in the first game of the season, but Penn State’s goal scorer, freshman Kate Wiesner, did not play since the eighth game of the season due to injury. 

“The first game was away from home, which obviously changes things a little bit, but it was a much tighter and harder game,” Ratcliffe said. “This afternoon we really played well, moved the ball and dominated a lot of the possession.”

Dennis finished with a career-high 12 saves in her last contest of collegiate action. In the 65th minute, however, Dennis was unable to readjust after she dove to parry the shot from Doms after it took its deflection.

“I was reading it going to the right, probably in the air and just took a bad deflection,” Dennis said. 

“I would have liked to have scored more goals when we had opportunities,” Ratcliffe said. “Their goalkeeper was tremendous and they were very well coached well organized so it’s hard to break through.”

“Our goalkeeper was absolute class today,” Dambach said. “Amanda did what you would expect from one of the top goalkeepers in the country.”

Redshirt freshman keeper Katie Meyer was kept busy within the build-up play stringing passes together with her center backs, but was entirely untested by the Penn State attack. Stanford has earned 12 shutouts in its last 13 games and has held opponents to two shots or fewer in 16-of-22 games. 

“We’ve been disciplined as a team, not letting them get into our defensive third,” Girma said. “As a backline, we’ve been really locked down defensively and just blocking shots, doing anything to keep it away from our goal.”

Macario is the first player since 2011 to reach 30 goals and the only Stanford player ever to do so.

“As a forward, it would be remarkable, now you move her into midfield,” Ratcliffe said. “It just shows how complete of a player she is that she’s able to share the ball and get everyone involved. She’s the major catalyst for our team.”

Stanford will have a chance to clinch a berth into the College Cup at home on Friday at 3 p.m. PST against undefeated BYU (21-0-1, 8-0-1 WCC). 

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a desk editor in the sports section. He is originally from Berkeley, California. Contact him at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.