Penn State goalkeeper's next adventure: Final Four

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State's senior goalkeeper always has a story to tell and, often, some offbeat activity to introduce to her teammates. Like slacklining.

Erin McNulty started slacklining a few months ago. A rope is stretched between two objects and a person walks across on the rope, often barefoot. She and fellow goalie Britt Eckerstrom have slacklined during hikes, on campus and during a team gathering at Bald Eagle State Park.

Yes, McNulty is the adventurous type. Teammates say this. And the fact that she is anchoring the defense as the Nittany Lions prepare to play tonight in San Diego in the College Cup -- soccer's version of the Final Four -- is adventurous in itself.

This is because McNulty is the Russell Wilson of women's college soccer. She took advantage of the NCAA rule that allows athletes who have graduated to transfer immediately to a new school and play if they haven't used up four years of eligibility. Wilson, now the quarterback for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, famously left North Carolina State after graduating early and played one season at Wisconsin.

McNulty graduated from Florida State in 2011. She no longer wanted to play there and wasn't sure if she wanted to play college soccer at all.

Her degree was in business management. She thought about diving into the real world. With so many college graduates that spring, job prospects weren't exactly sterling.

That summer, as she played club soccer in Vancouver, she considered the email Penn State coach Erica Walsh had sent her about playing for the Nittany Lions.

Having close connections to Florida State as a former assistant, Walsh had learned of McNulty's situation:

A goalkeeper who won 36 games for Florida State was, more or less, on the open market with two years of eligibility left. And it just so happened Penn State needed a new goalkeeper.

"I knew that Erica is a great coach and knew some of the girls on the team," McNulty said. "At that point, I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I thought about it a lot. ... I wanted to give it another shot.

"I'm happy I did because it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life."

Last season, she led the Big Ten with 14 shutouts. This year, McNulty has six, including two in the NCAA tournament.

Against Michigan in the Sweet 16, she encountered one of the defining moments of her career. The game, tied 1-1, went to a shootout.

She allowed goals on Michigan's first two penalty kicks. Penn State missed both its shots. With no room for error, McNulty saved Michigan's next three attempts. Penn State made its last three shots and survived.

"I tried to be as big as I could in the goal," McNulty said. "As explosive as I could."

Her freshman year at Florida State, McNulty played in the College Cup.

This fall, teammates often asked for her opinion about Penn State's chances of achieving such success. They seek her guidance all the time.

As senior Maddy Evans says, the team sees McNulty, a 23-year-old in graduate school, as a mom -- an adventurous mom, but still a mom. She's a little older, a little more experienced, tends to notice pieces of the game the others don't and is always checking to make sure her teammates are OK.

"She brings a complete package to the table," Evans said. "Honestly, it's been an honor to work with her, and I've really enjoyed these past two years with her."

Tonight, they'll lean on McNulty again for her defense. She says she's going into this weekend with a two-game mindset, confident Penn State can win the semifinal and play in the final.

The Nittany Lions' semifinal opponent is Florida State, McNulty's former team. It should definitely be an adventure.

psusports

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, Twitter @mdent05.


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