SAN DIEGO -- In the final moment, Christine Nairn was either perfectly positioned or fantastically fortunate.
There was no such uncertainty about why it mattered in the first place. Given every chance to follow the same script as Penn State teams in recent seasons, shooting themselves and their championship hopes in the foot before fortune ever had an opportunity to weigh in on matters, the Nittany Lions and their senior captain instead held their ground against Florida State to set the tone on a night when serendipity reigned and superiority was tough to find in the College Cup.
After losing the lead they held for much of the second half with 42 seconds left to play in regulation, Penn State earned a place in the national championship game for the first time in program history when Nairn put home a ball from six yards out in the second minute of overtime to secure a 2-1 win.
After claiming an errant Florida State header and making the initial aggressive run down the middle, Nairn passed the ball to Maya Hayes near the left corner of the 18-yard box. As Hayes looked for a way to get to the end line, Nairn continued her run without the ball toward the near post. Unable to get to the end line, Hayes turned and drove a pass across the field that Maddy Evans immediately served back through the box. All Nairn had to do was direct it in.
Was there any doubt in her mind that she had managed to stay onside when Evans served the ball in those frantic final seconds?
"Uhh yeah," Nairn offered with a smile and little of the assertiveness typical of the team captain, All-American and United States international. "Before I really celebrated, I think I looked back and forth between the sideline ref and the official to make sure it went in. And as soon as I didn't get a response out of those two, I just kind of ran away."
The replays immediately available offered little conclusive proof one way or the other. It looked possible that a Florida State defender kept Nairn onside; it also looked possible she was half a step behind the last defender.
But if Nairn equivocated after the game as to her positioning, she did nothing of the sort when Penn State players gathered, a little shellshocked, in the break before the first overtime. Just over 40 seconds from winning in regulation on the strength of a Hayes goal, the Nittany Lions watched Seminoles defender Kristin Grubka split two opponents near the sideline and deliver a cross that Tiffany McCarty, the leading scorer in Florida State history, headed to the far post in sensational fashion to draw level. As Penn State coach Erica Walsh huddled with her assistants during the break, she looked over and saw Nairn delivering a stem-winder to her teammates.
"I don't think I can say exactly what I said," Nairn admitted. "I just think back to where we've been and where we want to go. We come from the Big Ten conference, which isn't always the most pretty soccer and it's all about the battle. I think that's what took us above Florida State this game."
Despite all the Big Ten championships, and there has been at least a share of those for 15 consecutive seasons, and all the All-Americans, Penn State has been a frequent postseason flop. After the game, Walsh conceded that past teams did not have the mental toughness her current team possesses. Some of that is this collection of personalities; some might be the effort she and the athletic department made to foster it through training. But it has been there much of the season, one that began with injuries and in the shadow of the controversy that surrounded the entire campus in the wake of scandal and sanctions for the football team. So when Nairn, who has admitted to being her own worst enemy at times in the past, spoke during those five minutes before overtime, it wasn't to say something new -- which was the point. The postseason is not the time to suddenly become tough.
"There was an intensity to it," defender Whitney Church said. "I mean, we definitely needed to know that we had this game and that all we had to do was come out hard. So there was some intensity to the speech, but for the most part, it was nothing we hadn't heard before. It was just making sure that we all still had our heads in it and were in the right place."
This wasn't a case of Penn State players wanting it more than Florida State players. FSU coach Mark Krikorian lamented that his team didn't have all of the intensity he hoped in the first half, but the Seminoles also played extremely hard -- and extremely well -- for stretches in the opening half and throughout the second half. If the header hadn't fallen to Nairn's feet to kick off the final sequence, and if the flag, rightly or wrongly, had gone up, the game might just as easily have gone the other way. The Nittany Lions didn't want it more. They weren't mentally tougher.
But they were resilient enough to still be there when opportunity knocked.
"Obviously this past year at Penn State has been a challenging one," Walsh said. "But we've talked about it so many times and we've come out the other side. These guys have been the front people; they've been the ones on the front line. Through it, they've grown. They've grown together, and they're leaders.
"What great opportunities for young student-athletes to grow into women."
North Carolina beats top-seeded Stanford in overtime
There is no better opportunity for young soccer players to grow into future stars than the Under-20 Women's World Cup, a tournament that gave fans some of their first looks at players such as Marta and Alex Morgan. But when Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai teamed up for the only goal the United States needed in a 1-0 win over Germany to win the championship this past September, it was only the end of a chapter, not the entire story.
Less than a week after celebrating that win in Japan, Dunn and Ohai each played 86 minutes in North Carolina's 2-1 loss at Maryland. Another loss and a draw followed soon thereafter, a distinctly unfamiliar stretch for North Carolina.
"I remember us just being so exhausted," Dunn said. "I think we had landed back in the U.S. maybe like five days before that game or something. And we, mentally and physically, just weren't back to where we were. Coming off the World Cup, we were [in Japan] for a month, and just coming back and joining the UNC team, I think, it was a little hard for us. But like most things, we had to adapt."
That they will play for a another championship (as will Penn State U-20 veterans Hayes and Taylor Schram) this Sunday suggests they adapted rather well. So, too, do game-saving or game-winning goals three consecutive games from one or the other, including the second game in a row in which they mimicked their World Cup success and teamed up for the winner.
A week ago, it was Ohai finding Dunn for the overtime winner at BYU. Locked in a 0-0 draw into the first overtime of a semifinal against Stanford on Friday, Dunn collected the ball at midfield and took off toward the goal. North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said again this week that Dunn is in the same class of dribblers as any player who has ever come through North Carolina. She made him look good by somehow staying on her feet and maintaining possession after an encounter with Stanford senior Alina Garciamendez, one of the best defenders in the nation and a rock throughout the semifinal. That done, Dunn slipped a pass to Ohai on the right side, where her fellow junior put a shot the only place she could to beat brilliant Stanford keeper Emily Oliver -- off the far post and in to end the game.
Dunn and Ohai have every right to be worn out by now, having played soccer at the highest level available to them for essentially more than a year without a break. Instead, they are playing their best soccer. There were plenty of heros for the Tar Heels on Friday, from goalkeeper Adelaide Gay reading the game and making one highlight-reel save on a long chip to stalwart midfielder Amber Brooks and the reserves who held Stanford in check while starters rested.
But they were ultimately part of a victory because two world-class players again lived up to that label when it mattered.
"I think that the World Cup and winning that with the U-20s, it's a completely different experience," Ohai said. "Honestly, I think that being on that level kind of sparked something inside of us. And it kind of made us realize how cool this game can actually be. College soccer is amazing, and it's incredible, but there's something about a World Cup you just can't describe.
"So I think winning that and coming back and having this opportunity to be on such an incredible North Carolina team has kind of given us more passion and fire, and we're really going after it."
Friday marked the first time both semifinals went to overtime since 1986, a fitting summary of two games in which four teams played well enough to win. Perhaps also fittingly, it was left to a member of one of those sides that saw their season end in the blink of an eye to put the evening in perspective.
"I think that's why you play soccer," Florida State's Tiana Brockway said after her final game. "It's not something that can ever be replicated or any situation. You can score on the run of play, on set pieces, off the run of play, and it works both ways."
All you can do is put yourself in position to finish the opportunity when it comes.
Penn State and North Carolina did just that.