Men’s College Cup Preview: Penn State v. Hartwick
Thursday night at 7 p.m., Jeffrey Field will host two teams going in opposite directions. Penn State has lost five of its last seven and was bounced in the first round of the Big Ten tournament by an upstart Michigan State squad. The Hartwick Hawks, meanwhile, made the tournament solely on a late-season hot streak. Hartwick has won three in a row, with the last two awarding them a Sun Belt Conference tournament title.
There is still plenty of room for optimism in Happy Valley. This Hartwick team walks in with a 6-9-4 record, including a brutal 2-8-1 mark away. The two wins, by the way were against Georgia State (8-10) and Georgia Southern (8-9). Hartwick got hot at the right time, otherwise, they would not be here. Penn State, meanwhile, is battle-tested. While it has certainly struggled to end the season, the Nittany Lions showed that they are one of the better teams in the country when they put it all together. Limping into the tournament was not the dream, of course, but this is an incredibly promising draw.
While some eschew individual statistics in favor of pure scouting when it comes to soccer, that notion is more than a tad antiquated. Statistically speaking, the Lions have the upper hand. Hartwick has scored 1.16 goals per game while allowing 1.37 per game, which makes sense when considering its sub-.500 record on the year. Penn State, meanwhile, has scored 1.44 goals per game while allowing just 0.83 goals per game. The Hawks outpace PSU with a .466 shots on goal percentage (PSU’s being .432), but they also played significantly weaker competition. PSU’s number, considering strength of schedule, is far more impressive. Hartwick boast a few talented players, including Kit Treagar and Mike Rood, but on paper this game is PSU’s to lose.
The key to victory for Penn State is their midfield. If they can provide quality service to Connor Maloney and Mikey Minutillo, while also helping shield a strong back four led by Eli Dennis, they will succeed. Andrew Wolverton can make just about any save, but not relying on him to do so will be key. Penn State needs to shut down opponents’ attacks from the get-go and avoid playing catch up. While being eliminated early in the Big Ten Tournament was not pleasant, it gave the team a chance to rest. They have not played since November 9, which could be a huge factor, as the team seemed to run out of gas down the stretch. With that time off, the energy of a home crowd, and a favorable matchup, a 3-0 victory is attainable. The team will need to begin clicking on all cylinders once again, but even a 2-1 with strong possession numbers would be encouraging for Bob Warming’s boys.
The Nittany Lions have faced incredible highs and crushing lows this year, but now find themselves in a good position to regain momentum at home against a team they are clearly superior to. The winner of this matchup faces the unenviable task of taking on the 9th-seeded Syracuse Orange. While a tall task, this team has every factor needed to be up to it if they can get over their late-season hiccups. They should not look past Hartwick, but a defeat at home would be a shocking upset. They say anything can happen in the tournament, but odds are that saying favors the Lions early on.
The Lions are hungry. Their veteran leadership, strong coaching, depth and overall talent level provide for a combo few teams can match. If they can live up to their early-season hype, this team could make a serious run.