After a 1-1 draw with UCF on Sept. 6, Maryland women’s soccer coach Ray Leone was in great spirits. He remarked the performance was his team’s best of the season.

He said the same after the Terps’ 2-1 overtime loss to Nebraska on Sept. 16, and again following a scoreless draw against then-No. 22 Wisconsin on Sept. 30.

But on Sunday, Maryland didn’t have to grasp for a moral victory. Instead of falling short again despite another valiant effort, the Terps’ strong play was rewarded in a 2-1 defeat of then-No. 14 Northwestern.

The Terps (4-7-4, 2-4-1 Big Ten) finally earned a confidence-boosting victory against the Wildcats, and it came at a time when they needed one entering a difficult road matchup with Penn State (9-5, 5-2 Big Ten) on Friday.

“Getting the win against Northwestern was a major goal for our season, just getting that triumphant moment,” midfielder Darby Moore said. “So going into [this weekend], I think we’re in brighter spirits.”

[Read more: ‘Can you do that again, please?’: Maryland soccer had to beg Loren Sefcik to score]

Prior to beating the ranked Wildcats squad, the Terps hadn’t beaten a top-25 team since dispatching No. 25 Rutgers in 2014. For a roster with 17 underclassmen and only four seniors, the upset provided a major morale boost.

With the exception of goalkeeper Rachel Egyed — who was redshirting the season of the Rutgers game — none of Maryland’s current players had ever experienced topping a ranked opponent. And before Sunday, none had won multiple Big Ten games in a season.

“We’re a very young team, so we’re learning throughout every single game,” midfielder Loren Sefcik said. “But we just have to keep the mindset that yeah, we’re a young team, but we can beat anyone that comes upon us.”

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While the win was Maryland’s most impressive of the season on paper, it came against a Northwestern team that hadn’t played up to its top-15 ranking in recent weeks. The Wildcats have now lost three of their last four contests and is tied with the Terps for 10th in the Big Ten with a 2-4-1 conference record.

Penn State, on the other hand, is playing its best soccer of the season. After starting their conference slate 2-2, the Nittany Lions have won three consecutive matchups to surge to second place in the Big Ten standings.

The Terps have struggled mightily against Penn State since joining the conference in 2014. The Nittany Lions have won their four matches since Maryland’s arrival, outscoring the Terps 6-0 in those contests. But in beating Northwestern, the Terps proved to themselves they can hang with the best teams in the conference.

So even though most people won’t be giving them much of a chance when they step on the field at Penn State on Friday, they’ll be competing with a newfound sense of belonging.

“We’re the underdog again,” Leone said. “We’re playing Penn State and Ohio State this weekend. It’s not chopped liver, they’re the best in the business. … You have to bring everything or you’ll get wiped off the map.”