Ivy Leaf - Spring 2009

Kickin' It Up

Women's Soccer Coach Wassell sees early success and earns coach of the year honors

By Steve Crider

Two years removed from a disappointing 6-7-4 season with no postseason bid, the 2008 Penn State Altoona women’s soccer team enjoyed a truly magical season that culminated with the school’s first-ever Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Championship and subsequent NCAA Division III Tournament appearance. A program historically muddled in mediocrity, women’s soccer at Penn State Altoona is now on the regional map, and Head Coach Tim Wassell has been instrumental in the turnaround.

"The last two years have been a remarkable journey that has captured the imagination of every person that has come in contact with the women’s soccer program. We’ve been extremely fortunate in the quality individuals that we’ve been able to attract and they have displayed exemplary character on and off the field. I’m immensely proud of their accomplishments, as they have worked diligently to take the women’s soccer program to this level," states Wassell.

With a large number of players returning from the 2007 team, which went 13-6-1, and a talented crop of incoming freshmen, expectations were running high for the 2008 season. The Lions won their first four games of the year by a combined score of 20-0, winning the Alfred University Tournament and defeating Presidents Athletic Conference power Washington & Jefferson in the process.

The most difficult non-conference tests came under the lights of Spring Run Stadium where Altoona edged Marietta College 3-2 in overtime and slipped past local rival Juniata College 1-0 in double OT. It marked the Lions’ first-ever win over Marietta in five all-time meetings, while the victory over Juniata propelled the squad to 7-0.

Altoona dominated its first three AMCC contests versus Hilbert, Pitt-Greensburg, and Franciscan, blanking all three league opponents and improving to 11-0 overall. Next up was arguably the toughest test of the season at La Roche, and the Lions had the game in hand with less than a minute remaining before the unthinkable happened. Jemma Devlin scored the game-tying goal for the Redhawks with forty-seven seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 1-1, which would remain the outcome after two scoreless overtime periods.

"I believe the first half of the year validated to the team that the year could be very special if we remained focused. Despite our overall record, we faced a substantial amount of adversity and continuously proved capable of being resilient to the challenges that we faced. These experiences definitely served as a conduit to help us be successful in the playoff season. I believe the La Roche game was a blessing in disguise because the undefeated record seemed to be something that was constantly looming overhead. Once the La Roche match ended, we came to the realization that the world would not end if we didn’t win and we got back to having fun with the games."

On the horizon were dates with Frostburg State and Penn State Behrend, the two conference powerhouses that had captured every AMCC Championship since the formation of the league. The Lions used an early goal and stellar defense to eek past Frostburg State 1-0 and improve to 13-0-1 and 5-0-1 in the league. After thrashing Medaille College, it was off to Erie where the Lions earned their first-ever win over Behrend thanks to an overtime goal by Whitney Hough.

The undefeated regular season was completed with a 2-0 win at Mount Aloysius, giving the Lions a 16-0-1 overall mark, 8-0-1 AMCC record, and first-round bye in the upcoming conference playoffs.

Altoona hosted Penn State Behrend in the AMCC semifinals and earned a dramatic 1-0 overtime win to advance to its first league championship. Freshman sensation Emily Reimold blasted home the winning goal to set up a rematch with Frostburg State in the finals. Reimold got the Lions on the board in the opening half, and Altoona took a 1-0 lead into intermission. Frostburg answered in the second stanza, tying the game in the sixty-eighth minute. Neither team would score during the rest of regulation and the overtimes, meaning the AMCC Championship and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament would be decided in a shootout.

Freshman goalkeeper Lindsay Raspanti, who pitched multiple shutouts and boasted a 0.35 goals against average, came up huge by stopping the final two Bobcat attempts. Altoona made all four of its shootout tries and celebrated wildly when Raspanti spectacularly saved the final Frostburg shot.

"Exceeding the first half of the season was always going to be a challenge; however, the performances that were delivered in the second half were simply exquisite. To supply the effort that we did in the first Frostburg game, without three regular starters, that was when internally I knew that we had an exceptional group," states Wassell. "From that game on, I told the team that nobody within our group had any reason to doubt that we could win the conference title. The drive and determination that was illustrated in the final matches of the regular season and through the playoffs served as a great representation of the moral fiber of the team. It was only fitting to see the final end in dramatic fashion, as it ser ved a fitting capstone to a fairytale season."

The NCAA Tournament bracket was announced the following Monday via a live online selection show. The team gathered to watch the show and discovered it would travel to Ohio to face Otterbein College, the Ohio Athletic Conference champion which had appeared in the 2005 and 2006 NCAA Tournaments.

Altoona put up a valiant fight in what was essentially a road game since the contest was played in Wester ville, Ohio, on the Otterbein campus. Despite losing 1-0 on a last-second goal, the Lions held their heads high, celebrated their phenomenal achievements, and prepared to collect a plethora of postseason conference, regional, and national recognition.

A record six players earned AMCC All- Conference accolades including Reimold, Raspanti, Kelly White, and Liz Watt, who were first team selections. For his efforts, Coach Wassell was selected as conference Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season. A month later, Wassell was named the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year and became a finalist for NSCAA National Coach of the Year. Reimold and White also collected honors from the NSCAA, marking the first time in program history a women’s soccer player received NSCAA honors. Reimold was a second-team Great Lakes Region all-star, while White nabbed third-team Regional honors.

When the final NCAA statistical rankings were released in mid-December, Penn State Altoona was well represented in a number of categories, both team and individual. Reimold, only a freshman but arguably the best player to ever wear a Lion uniform, finished the season with 19 goals, 7 assists, and 45 points, setting new single-season Penn State Altoona records for goals and points in the process. She ranked thirty-ninth in goals at just under one per game and thirty-second in points (2.25) in all of Division III.

Classmate Helena Tinnyo passed out 11 assists in the 2008 season and finished sixth in the nation in assists per game at 0.73. Raspanti’s 0.35 goals against average was the fourth best in the country, and her .884 save percentage ranked her fourteenth among Division III goalkeepers. For the season, Raspanti, a five-time AMCC Goalkeeper of the Week, allowed only five goals in nearly 1,300 minutes of action and made 38 saves.

As a team, the Lions were forty-sixth in scoring offense (2.85 goals per game), third in goals against average (.336), sixth in shutout percentage (.70), fourth in win-loss percentage (.900), and sixth in save percentage (.887). Altoona outscored the competition by a total margin of 57-7 and out-shot opponents 351-128.

While a few key upperclassmen like White and Courtney Campbell anchored the defense and served as team captains, it was primarily the freshmen who provided most of the punch, particularly on the offensive end. Six freshmen star ted fifteen or more games and, at times, up to nine freshmen started a game, making the Lions the youngest team in the AMCC.

"Being dominant at this level is no small task. However, to accomplish what we did this year with only two juniors and zero seniors makes the season especially fascinating. Again, I feel like I can’t say enough about the character of our players. I’m overwhelmingly proud to call each and every one of them part of our family that we call our women’s soccer team."

With nearly the entire team back in 2009 and the addition of another top-notch recruiting class, expectations will undoubtedly be sky high for the Lions next season. And while another undefeated season would be ideal, Wassell says the goals of winning the league and making the NCAA Tournament are the primar y focus along with advancing in the tournament.

"Replicating the 2008 season will prove very difficult. However, very few believed that we could accomplish what we’ve done over the past two years. I think we like to subscribe to the philosophy of ‘why not?’ Collectively, we are aware that we will need to work much harder to see the same level of success, because the element of surprise is gone. With that being said, I know the team will be highly driven to get back to the NCAA Tournament after the heartbreak we experienced this year."