Your 2015 Spring Semester Sports Preview
By Zack Rickens (ZR), David Abruzzesse (DA), Doug Leeson (DL), C.J. Doon (CJ), and Ben Berkman (BB)
Though the weather may not feel like it, spring is just around the corner, marking the beginning of a new season for Penn State sports. Football season officially ended in dramatic fashion, in none other than the iconic Yankee Stadium, in December. Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team is currently fighting for its first bid to the NCAA tournament in four years. Though the temperatures remain frigid, preparation is heating up for hundreds of student-athletes as they shake off the rust from a long fall semester.
Here’s everything you need to know to get ready for the spring sports season.
Head coach Rob Cooper wrapped up his first year at the helm on a somewhat positive note — his team turned two triple plays on senior day. To put that in context, Penn State has fielded a baseball team since 1887 and had never before achieved that feat. The Lions became just the second team in the history of the NCAA to turn two triple plays in one game.
That would prove to be the highlight of the season, though, as the Lions finished the year with an 18-34 (5-18) record, last in the Big Ten. With conference newcomers Maryland and Rutgers now in the mix, Penn State will have an even tougher time during conference play. The Terrapins are coming off of a program-record 40-win season. The team from New Jersey is no slouch either — Rutgers finished its season with 30 wins and went 14-9 in AAC play. Penn State last played Rutgers in 2009 and is 32-29 all-time against the Scarlet Knights.
The Nittany Lions improved in nearly every statistical category last year, something Cooper’s teams have a knack for. Although the Nittany Lions lost a total of eight seniors to graduation, there are multiple statistical leaders returning in 2015, notably senior infielders Taylor Skerpon and J.J. White.
The team found itself in trouble on the mound in 2014, posting a 4.77 ERA and allowing a .292 opponent batting average. Multiple pitchers with in-game experience will return for the Lions in 2015, including junior Jack Anderson, sophomore Dakota Forsyth, and redshirt senior Geoff Boylston.
Penn State will fly south for the winter and play its first month of the schedule below the Mason-Dixon Line. The team opens up on Friday, Feb. 13 when it takes on Elon in North Carolina. The Lions’ home opener is on Wednesday, March 18. – ZR
Head coach Jeff Tambroni, who enters his fifth season at the helm, has a tough task ahead of him going into the 2015 season, which marks the start of Big Ten men’s lacrosse. After starting the season 2-0, with two tough road wins against Notre Dame and Ohio State, the team finished with a 7-6 record, ending the year with three consecutive wins.
In 2015, the Nittany Lions will have to weather a brutal schedule, facing six teams that participated in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, including two that advanced to the semifinal round. The team’s first major test comes against Loyola, followed by matchups against Villanova and Penn. The team embarks to the Boston area over spring break, where the Lions will play three games in one week, facing Harvard, Marist, and UMass. Tambroni gets an opportunity to return back to his alma mater when the Nittany Lions travel to Hobart, where they play 2014 tournament semifinalist Denver. The team’s final test comes with a trip to Ann Arbor, where the Lions will play Michigan to close out the regular season.
Penn State loses Shane Sturgis, the team’s leading scorer in 2014, a significant loss given that Sturgis recorded 33 goals and 17 assists on the season. Luckily, the team retains attacker T.J. Sanders, who finished second behind Sturgis in scoring with 23 goals and three assists. Replacing All-American goaltender Austin Kaut — considered by many experts as the nation’s top goaltender — will be a hefty task. Redshirt sophomore Darcey Connor is the next in line, and has some big shoes to fill in net this season.
The 2015 season will be a true test for a Penn State team losing significant offensive production, but under the tutelage of Tambroni, another winning season should be in order. – DA
No. 11 Women’s Lacrosse is poised for a big season after a 10-8 record last year. The team will have three nationally recognized players leading it: junior midfielder and second team Preseason All-American Madison Cyr, and honorable mentions senior Tatum Coffey and junior Jenna Mosketti.
This will be the first season for the brand new Big Ten Women’s Lacrosse Conference. The athletic grouping includes No. 11 Penn State, No. 1 defending national champion Maryland, No. 8 Northwestern, No. 9 Ohio State, and unranked Michigan and Rutgers.
Penn State retains four of its top five scorers from last season in Cyr, Coffey, Mosketti, and Maggie McCormick. Madison Cyr’s older sister, Mackenzie, graduated after being the team’s third-highest scorer last season.
The Nittany Lions open their season Saturday, Feb. 14 at home against the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, to begin their pursuit of a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance. – DL
Mark Pavlik enters his 21st season at the helm of Penn State men’s volleyball, compiling a career record of 482-142, including a National Title in 2008. Following a 25-7 record last year that ended with a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Loyola in the national semifinal, the Nittany Lions enter the 2015 season with a No. 3 ranking and the favorites to capture their 17th-straight EIVA crown.
The season began with a bumpy start, as the Lions dropped their first two matches to No. 8 UC Irvine and No. 10 Hawaii for a last place finish in the Outrigger Invitational in Honolulu, Hawaii. The lone bright spot was senior Aaron Russell, who finished the tournament with 29 kills, five aces, 18 digs, and three blocks. The back-to-back EIVA player of the year picked up where he left off last season, ranking No. 1 nationally in aces per game.
The good news? Penn State returns nearly all of its starters from last year, with All-EIVA second team honoree Peter Russell as the only departure. Key returners in the lineup include first team AVCA All-American Aaron Russell and redshirt senior Nick Goodell, who were both selected as 2014 Off the Block/Springbak Preseason All-Americans. First team All-EIVA honoree redshirt junior Taylor Hammond, second team All-EIVA selections redshirt senior Connor Curry, redshirt junior Matt Seifert also return to Happy Valley to bolster a strong rotation.
Penn State remains on the road this weekend against a pair of non-conference foes, taking on Ball State on Friday, Jan. 16 before heading to IPFW to square off against the Mastodons on Saturday, Jan. 17. – CJ
Track & Field
The 2015 indoor track & field team will look to carry momentum from a strong finish at last year’s NCAA Indoor Championships into a new season under new leadership at the head coaching position.
Following Beth Alford-Sullivan’s departure as head coach of track and field after 15 seasons, including two NCAA “Trophy” Team finishes, six Big Ten team titles, one Big Ten “Triple Crown,” as well as three individual NCAA Champions and one NCAA Champion relay, John Gondak will take over the head coaching duties after serving as an interim coach since July. Gondak, a former walk-on at Syracuse, served on the coaching staff for the previous eight seasons, most recently as the associate head coach.
Before joining Penn State, Gondak coached at the University of Kentucky, Georgia Tech, and Toledo. This summer, Gondak was named the distance coach of the U.S. for the North American, Central America, and Caribbean (NACAC) Athletic Association Under-23 Championships, overseeing a pair of first place finishes under his direction.
Penn State will compete in 10 meets this year, with the 2015 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships scheduled for March 13-14 in Fayetteville, Ark. In 2014, the squads came away with 10 All-America honors following the NCAA Indoor Championships, with the Penn State women placing 14th, including a new record in the 4X400 relay, to become the highest-finishing Big Ten team.
In the annual Blue-White scrimmage on Dec. 13, Shelley Black, Rachel Fatherly, Darrell Hill, and Brian Leap swept their respective events for the Penn State Blue team, leading to a 138-130 win over the White team. Penn State also claimed 10 titles at the Penn State Relays, with senior Darren Hill setting a school record in the shot put with a mark of 66-2.50, beating the previous school record of 65-7 set by C.J. Hunter in 1990. Sophomore Lexi Masterson also earned a meet record with a pole vault height of 12-10.25.
While the women’s team was left unranked, the men’s team earned a program-best preseason No. 5 ranking from the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA), significantly higher than its national 32nd place finish in 2014. Robby Creese is ranked third in the mile, Brannon Kidder is No. 2 at 800 meters and Za’Von Watkins is No. 10 at 800 meters, and the three will likely unite to reprise the top-ranked Distance Medley Relay squad from 2014.
Penn State will be back in action again on Saturday, Jan. 17, when they host the Nittany Lion Challenge at the Ashenfelter III Indoor Track. – CJ
Women’s: Jeff Thompson, one of only three coaches ever to lead multiple programs to the NCAA championship, enters his fifth season as head coach of the women’s gymnastics team with a 60-15 record in regular season competition. The Nittany Lions are currently ranked No. 15 in the nation, following a first place home finish over Cornell, New Hampshire, and Rutgers last weekend.
Last year, Penn State reached the national summit, the national championship of collegiate gymnastics, for the program’s 17th time, though it finished last in the 12-team event. It hasn’t made consecutive championship appearances since 2000, and is now tasked with replacing All-American Kassidy Stauder and vault and floor star Lindsey Musgrove. But four seniors and a host of underclassmen, including two 2014 All-Big Ten second team members, seem poised to follow up on last season’s success.
Men’s: The sixth-ranked men’s gymnastics team opened its 2015 trek with a narrow victory over No. 12 Army last weekend at Rec Hall. Three-time National Coach of the Year Randy Jepson is in his 24th season as the team’s head coach, holding a sturdy 340-63 record.
The Nittany Lions retained much of their 2014 experience, with five seniors including captain Tristan Duverglas and two juniors, but also host 10 new additions. Penn State’s roster includes four All-Americans, three from last year and one from 2013. Despite its No. 6 national preseason ranking, the Nittany Lions were slotted in fourth position in conference preseason polls.
If you’re a fan of watching the Nittany Lions compete live, the Penn State men’s and women’s gymnastics programs will each have one regular season meet televised by the Big Ten Network during the 2015 season. The Big Ten Championships for men’s gymnastics will return to the Recreation Building on campus on March 27 for the fourth time since 1992, while women’s gymnastics travels to Nebraska this weekend, Saturday Jan. 17, to take on the Cornhuskers. – BB
Featured photo: Mark Selders