Christine Nairn embraces tough love

Mark Selders/Penn State Athletics

Christine Nairn leads Penn State with 15 goals, an exceptional total for a midfielder, entering Friday's NCAA quarterfinal against Duke.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- As overtime wore on in a Sweet 16 game between No. 1 seed Penn State and Michigan, a player many consider the best midfielder in the country abandoned that position. Nittany Lions senior Christine Nairn may well be a part of the midfield mix for the United States by the time the 2015 Women's World Cup arrives, but with her college career and her team's season on the line against the Wolverines, she instead took her place at left back.

For a team that lost two starting defenders to injury before the regular season even started and spent much of the campaign playing a 3-5-2 formation out of pure necessity, it was all feet on deck in overtime. Penn State needed an extra defender and needed someone who could build possession out of the back.

"I asked her to play left back at one point," Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. "She looks at me and shakes her head and [said], 'Whatever you need, Coach.' That's just been their mentality all season long. Even when they know I'm crazy, they follow."

Crazy is one word Nairn might have used for her coach in years past -- if she was feeling generous. Walsh described the relationship between coach and star as a "love/hate" exercise for much of Nairn's first three seasons. How far it has come, and how far the team could go, was evident in those moments against Michigan.

"I think it just turned into a love relationship -- I don't know if we can afford to say that," Nairn joked. "It's a love/hate relationship in that she wants the absolute best for me, and she's not really scared to tell me what she thinks. If she tells me I had an awful game, you know, I had an awful game.

"I do respect her opinion more than anyone. She's the best coach I've ever played under."

That said, Walsh wasn't the coach Nairn expected to play under when she signed with Penn State. One of the top recruits in the nation coming out of Maryland, she signed with a program then under the direction of Paula Wilkins, who took the program to the College Cup in 2002 and 2005. But weeks after the high schooler committed, Wilkins left to take the head-coaching job at Wisconsin. Nairn took a step back and wondered whether she really wanted to go to Penn State. But when the school hired Walsh, who had coached Nairn in the youth national team program, she felt she had a coach who could get the best out of her.

Even if what that entailed proved to be a bit of a surprise.

Fresh out of high school, Nairn played with proven college stars for the United States in the 2008 Under-20 World Cup. When the Americans beat North Korea in the final, Nairn was in the starting lineup alongside the likes of Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux. Months before she played her first game for the Nittany Lions the next fall, she earned her first cap and scored her first goal for the full U.S. national team. It wasn't the résumé of someone familiar with receiving a great deal of criticism. But when Walsh asked her freshman what she wanted out of her college career, she took Nairn at her word that she wanted to be the best. No player is perfect at 18 or 19 years old.

"To come in here and kind of get knocked off my high horse, I think I needed that," Nairn said. "Not because I thought that I was the absolute best, but I had never heard it before, and I needed tough love a little bit."

She might have wanted a little, but she got a lot. As late as this past spring, Walsh made it clear that improving her fitness was a nonnegotiable step toward the ultimate goal of being the best in the country. Nairn responded, and she enters Friday's quarterfinal against third-seeded Duke in the midst of the best season of her life. With two key components of Penn State's offense, Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram, missing early in the season because of the Under-20 Women's World Cup, the senior shouldered that much more responsibility. She shares the team lead with 15 goals, remarkable for a midfielder, leads all players with 11 assists, and ranks third on the team in minutes.

Mark Selders/Penn State Athletics

Christine Nairn showed her versatility when she switched to left back during overtime of the Nittany Lions' Sweet 16 win over Michigan.

"It went from a push/pull, love/hate, to she will graduate here as one of my favorite people and players of all time," Walsh said. "I wanted her to be great the day she arrived, and she wasn't ready. I tried to speed along her process, and she resisted. She and I are both pigheaded, and the combination of the two didn't work for long periods of time.

"But now, in hindsight, I don't think either one of us have any regrets because we got there, and, to me, she's the best in the country. I'm so proud of where she is at this point."

What makes Penn State so difficult to stop is the width, literally, and breadth of its attacking options. Only a freshman, Mallory Weber has 13 goals with a track star's speed and a hockey grinder's sensibility. Fellow freshman Raquel Rodriguez has 10 assists and eases some of the playmaking burden on Nairn. Schram and Hayes returned in good form from the World Cup, with Hayes putting up an astonishing 15 goals in 17 games. There is individual skill across the field, but it's clear how much Nairn remains the hub when Hayes talks about the unspoken communication that goes on between the two of them.

"Things kind of just flow for us, and we read each other's body language," Hayes said. "I would say to myself that I get so much more tired playing with the [Under-20 team] because I think I'm thinking so much more. And that's one thing I've noticed I really don't do here. "

Penn State has seemed its own worst enemy in recent postseasons. It failed to reach the third round for three consecutive seasons, including the first two of Nairn's career, and exited on the wrong end of a big score against Wake Forest in the Sweet 16 last season. It was a program that seemed to buckle under the weight of its reputation or ranking. But twice this past weekend -- when Boston College pulled to within a goal early in the second half and when Michigan took a 2-0 lead in a shootout -- the Nittany Lions found ways to win when there were far more paths available to defeat. Maybe it's a bad sign that it took such effort to overcome two unseeded teams, but it felt like progress.

Much like the progress between a coach and player in pursuing the same goal.

"Myself included, I'm my own worst enemy in my four years," Nairn said. "I would take myself mentally out of games. I've learned through Coach kind of getting on my back, as well as [associate head coach Ann Cook] and all the other coaches, that that's not good enough. I've learned slowly but surely in my four years. But we've also learned as a team that, if we're mentally strong, we can be physically and tactically stronger if we have that good mentality base, kind of like the U.S. team -- never give up, play to the last minute. We just have that mentality now.

"It took time to develop, but it couldn't be piecing together at a more perfect time."

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