Cary, N.C. − Championship or bust has become the mentality for the Florida State women's soccer program.
First-year head coach Brian Pensky eluded to as much prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament, saying "it would be a disappointment," if the Seminoles did not repeat as national champions.
Now that FSU lost to UNC 3-2 in the College Cup semifinals and failed to become the first team since the 2008 and 2009 Tar Heels to repeat as national champs, Pensky did not change his tone.
But by no means would he call this past season for his team anything but a resounding success either.
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"They felt like they played very well," Pensky told the Democrat of his players' assessment of their play. "I am extremely proud of their resolve and fight to get back into the game and you know feel like could have been a different scoreline at the end.
"I feel like we just ran out of time. I had full confidence and I think they did as well full confidence were going to get a third goal. They were defending for their lives. So I think the kids feel good about their performance, feel proud of the fight and just really gutted to be home right now."
The numbers back up the assessment of Pensky's claim that the Seminoles were the better team.
FSU outshot UNC 25 to 14 and 13 to 3 on corner kicks. Two of the three goals for the Tar Heels came on set plays. Another came on a rebound near the end of the first half.
Even down 1-0 at halftime and 3-0 with just over 20 minutes left, the Seminoles' players never gave in.
The comeback from FSU on that stage is not something a lot of other teams likely could have pulled off, even if the team felt short at the end.
"We were down against them today, but also in the ACC (Tournament)," FSU's Onyi Echegeni said postgame. "It's not impossible to keep fighting. .. We looked back at that and said we could still win this game. Unfortunately, that's not what happened today."
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Picked fourth in the ACC
Despite winning the National Championship in 2021, the Seminoles were not picked to win the ACC coming into the 2022 season. They were not second or third either.
The departure of three-time national champion head coach Mark Krikorian, as well as star players in Jaelin Howell, Emily Madril, Yujie Zhao and Gabby Carle moving on to pursue careers in professional soccer, helped sink the Seminoles in the eyes of some.
"We were picked fourth," Pensky said. "And we finished first and we played all the top teams in the league. So we did a lot more than everybody thought we were going to do and it stings."
Duke was the preseason favorite. FSU defeated the Blue Devils 5-1 in October. Virginia was picked as the runner-up and the Seminoles defeated the then No. 1 Cavaliers 1-0 on Oct. 6.
UNC was picked to finish third and defeated FSU during the regular season, but the Seminoles topped them in the ACC Tournament.
Pensky and the team felt like they were the better team against UNC in the rubber match, despite the loss. It's hard to argue with them.
"Now, it's terrible, and it will be terrible, at least through Monday and now we have to sit and watch the national championship," Pensly said. "But as time goes by, and we continue to have a little bit more time between the loss and moving on, we will reflect upon these past eight months and we'll feel really good about everything that was accomplished."
Smaller roster size
A look at the rosters for the teams at the College Cup showed a major discrepancy and disadvantage for the Seminoles.
FSU started and finished the season with a 20-player roster. UNC had nearly a roster double the size with 37 players. UCLA (35 players) and Alabama (30) also had a distinct advantage over the Seminoles in roster size.
With Krikorian abruptly resigning in March and Pensky being hired in late April, Pensky was playing catch up on building a roster, as a number of players went pro and the majority of the roster hit the transfer portal.
While Pensky did convince a good majority of the players to return, the team was still limited in numbers and while the team never used it as an excuse, one has to wonder how much the team had left in the gas tank compared to teams with more reinforcements on the bench.
"I think (the season was) an enormous accomplishment and for anyone to think otherwise, would be pretty ignorant," Pensky said. "We had 20 players. We lost to a team yesterday that had 37 players. There was not another team at the college cup that had fewer than 30 players.
"For our kids to do what they did, with a group of 20 of them, given what they went through and March, April and May, it would have been quite a story had they won the national championship."
Seventh-year player Clara Robbins, as well as fourth-year seniors Heather Payne and Jenna Nighswonger, celebrated senior day against Virginia Tech on Oct. 27 and are likely going to pursue pro careers. They will not return.
Nighswonger finished second in the NCAA with 16 assists and also added six goals, while Robbins finished with five goals and Payne had four. The three were also the main leaders for the program and will be missed.
The rest of the 17 players are expected back, according to Pensky. The Seminoles have announced the signing of four additional players: forward Jordynn Dudley (Alpharetta, Ga.), midfield/defender Amelia Van Zanten (Kildeer, Ill.), M/F Peyton Nourse (Centennial, Colorado) and M Maggie Taitano (Carlsbad, California).
That should bring the Seminoles' roster to 21 players, one more than this season, without any more additions. Pensky added more names could be added via the transfer portal or as high school signees. He said adding through the portal is more likely to reach his goal of ideal roster size.
"I think the right number is and I've always felt this way somewhere around 25," he said. "Our strength staff, Elisa Angeles, our sports medicine staff and Alora Sullivan, they're off the charts. We went from start to finish with 20 kids and no injuries. That's unheard of.
"That's not an every-year occurrence. We got to make sure we have enough players to allow for an injury here or there. And then also maybe a kid just not being ready to help us win at the highest level. So we'd like to have a minimum of 25 but really not much more than that."
Reach Ehsan Kassim at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Ehsan_Kassim. You can also follow our coverage on Facebook (NoleSports) and Instagram (tlhnolesports).
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: FSU Seminoles soccer have successful first season under Brian Pensky