Staff Picks: The Year’s Best Penn State Sports Moments
It’s been quite a year in Happy Valley. And it’s been quite a year for Penn State sports.
From a two-minute drill in Ireland, to a third-period hat trick at Pegula Ice Arena, to a surprise pop culture icon at a mid-January basketball game, here are our staff picks for the year’s best moments in Penn State sports.
Doug Leeson: Hockey Splits Series With Ohio State
I’ve written about it once, or twice, or 40 times this season, so I can say with confidence I know a good deal about Penn State hockey. This season saw plenty of “firsts,” ranging from the program’s first ranking to its first NHL player, but what I think was the best moment of the season (and for me, best Penn State sports moment this year) was the Jan. 9 and Jan. 10 series against Ohio State at Pegula, and specifically the now-infamous Casey Bailey hat trick.
In the series’ first game, the Buckeyes led 4-0 after two periods. The men’s hockey team, Penn State’s resident comeback kids, had had enough of its opponents and its offense erupted. Casey Bailey scored two quick goals, line mate David Goodwin added another, and then Bailey completed the comeback in the last minute of the most exciting period that Pegula Ice Arena had ever seen. Unfortunately, Penn State only would have won the game in the Disney version – Ohio State won 5-4 in overtime following a questionable non-call.
The Nittany Lions won the next day 4-1 thanks to a pair of goals from Eric Scheid and an outstanding game from goaltender Eamon McAdam. The series went into the record books as a split, but will always looked back at fondly by the Penn State faithful in Hockey Valley.
CJ Doon: Women’s Volleyball Continues The Dynasty
Death, Taxes, and Russ Rose.
There’s something uniquely satisfying about watching Penn State women’s volleyball. You know the Lions are going to win, no matter what happens, and that’s a rare feeling in Happy Valley. Football, basketball, and hockey offer heartbreak at every turn, while all women’s volleyball does is win. Russ Rose’s squad has casually won six titles in eight years, including two straight for a record seven championships.
So when Penn State entered the NCAA Tournament finals against unseeded BYU, there was little doubt as to what would happen next. Three sets later, the Lions were hoisting the trophy yet again, and Micha Hancock, who built herself into a Penn State legend during her time on campus, ended her career on top with yet another national title. Watching Hancock lead outside hitters Nia Grant, Ali Frantti, Aiyana Whitley, and Megan Courtney to the promised land was an amazing sight to behold, as Penn State’s dominant attack put down kill after kill during their blitz through the tournament, including a victory over No. 1 Stanford in the semifinals.
Sports dynasties are rare and magnificent creatures, and Penn State women’s volleyball is in the middle of an impressive one. Enjoy it while you can, folks.
Here’s the final set:
Ben Berkman: Flavor Flav Turns Back The Clocks
The game itself was peak Penn State basketball. After dropping its first four games in Big Ten play following a 12-1 non-conference slate, the Nittany Lions looked to have secured its first win, comfortably ahead by three points with seven seconds to play. Somehow, Penn State neglected to box out on the a foul shot, allowed an offensive rebound, and gave up a corner game-tying three pointer to push the game into overtime. The Lions flamed out in the extra period, dropping to 0-5 in conference play for the second season in a row. If that wasn’t enough, fans were turned away at the door despite an abundance of empty seats inside.
That alone was not my favorite sports memory of the year. But the game had a special guest: the esteemed rapper and entertainer Flavor Flav.
When James Franklin tweeted a picture with Flav courtside, the press box stopped paying any attention to the lackluster game and started a frantic search for the rapper. Soon, after tweeting he was point guard Shep Garner’s cousin, he was spotted in the players’ families seating area. In overtime, Flav weaved through the student section, taking selfies with fans and distracting the audience from the futile effort on the court. It may not have come on the hardwood, but for a brief moment on a January afternoon, there was excitement in the Bryce Jordan Center.
Noel Purcell: Men’s Basketball’s Improbable Big Ten Tournament Run
Then the tournament started, and the team had a last chance for romance. Maybe a competitive game against Nebrasketball would let Newbill’s career end with dignity. Instead, #whynotus was born, the team went to war with the Huskers on the back of 26 from Newbill and, of all people, 17 from Ross Travis. Never has a first round win in a conference tournament against a mediocre opponent felt so good. The Iowa game pitted Penn State against a tournament-bound Fran McCaffery team, and we spent the second half wiping the floor with them. Another solid outing from the dynamic duo of Ross and DJ, plus the re-emergence of Geno Thorpe, who looked poised to take a step, was beautiful. Three games in three days proved too much for a team that struggled for depth, however, and it simply ran out of gas against Purdue.
The image of D.J. Newbill bawling his eyes out after his last game in blue and white is what Penn State pride, at least in athletics, is all about. It was a great moment even in defeat, despite me accidentally calling it a “miracle run” on Twitter. But for the first time in a long time, Penn State basketball made people feel something real. It was a team that became fun to watch and root for, the underdog darling of mid-day ESPN programming for a country only vaguely familiar with Newbill, let alone Shep Garner, Julian Moore, and Kevin Montminy the god. It was the moment that made you feel maybe, just maybe, Penn State basketball was ready to turn the corner. That’s always when they break your heart, but hey, #whynotus?
Alex Robinson: Ficken’s Game-Winner In Ireland
I’ll keep this brief: Sam Ficken’s game-winning field goal in the season opener against Central Florida in Ireland is this year’s best sports moment.
The circumstances were unique in so many ways. It was James Franklin’s first game, it was on a different continent, it was the first game of the season. But the best part of the game was that, after an up-and-down 2013 season, Ficken solidified his place in Nittany Lion lore with a 4-for-4 performance on field goals, including a 36-yarder as time expired to give Penn State a 26-24 win.
Of course, we all know the rest of the story. Ficken went on to have arguably the best season of any Nittany Lion kicker in program history, going 24-for-29 on field goals throughout his senior season, including a game-tying field goal against the eventual national champion Ohio State Buckeyes to send the game into overtime, and the game-tying field goal and the game-winning extra point in the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College in Yankee Stadium. But the game-winner against UCF started the season on the right note, provided a shot of adrenaline that carried through the next few games coming back to the United States, and gave Ficken the redemption and validation that he worked for and deserved.
Here’s the view from the stands:
David Abruzzese: Anthony Zettel’s Pick-Six Against The Buckeyes
I’m a lucky kid. I’ve been to NHL Playoff games, more NFL games than I can keep track of, a BCS National Championship, major golf tournaments, and the hallowed Yankee Stadium. This year, I was fortunate enough to experience another one of the most exhilarating sports moments of my entire life.
Penn State vs. Ohio State. A date I had circled on my calendar since the schedule was released. I was in the press box for the game, and I can tell you firsthand: The hype was real. Penn State went down 17-0, and coming out of halftime needed a boost of some sort. J.T. Barrett had sliced and diced Penn State’s defense all night, and with the ball in his hands entering the third quarter, it seemed as though the result would be the same — a touchdown.
You could feel the energy slowly being sucked out of the stadium, but after a key stop on second down, it was now or never for Penn State. The team desperately needed a stop, and as Barrett dropped back on third and six the unthinkable happened. Anthony Zettel stayed back in zone coverage, and happened to jump the underneath route perfectly. He picked off Barrett and took it to the house for six much needed points for Penn State. The play in itself was miraculous, but the energy that could be felt in the stadium after that is something that couldn’t be put into words. I’ve never experienced an earthquake, but feeling that press box sway back and forth as the crowd erupted is one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had.
The play itself undoubtedly changed the course of the game. Without it, Ohio State would have surely marched back into the redzone and punched it in for what would have been a crushing blow. But Zettel’s interception not only put the team back in the game, but it injected life into the crowd. Sure, Penn State lost — albeit unjustly — but I’ve never experienced a more riveting game in my entire life. I was deflated, but that one moment will stick with me forever.
Check out the play below (it’s the first highlight):
Jake Abrams: Penn State Football Wins Its First Bowl Game Since Jan. 2010
My favorite moment of this sports year has to be the New Era Pinstripe Bowl win against Boston College. Back in 2012, the sanctions were handed down to the university, and it really hit Penn State fans. It was hard to have the season end right after the last regular season game, with no postseason to root for. That all changed when the NCAA lifted the sanctions this year, allowing Penn State to go bowling once again.
This bowl game was special and has to be considered one of the all-time classics in Penn State postseason history. Not just for the way the game ended, but the magnitude that came along with it. This would be the first bowl game in two years, and it would definitely live up to the hype.
No one knew what to expect from the Nittany Lions in this game; this was a team that just barely made it into the postseason with its star quarterback regressing from his freshman year. However, many fans were just happy that they were there, and in a Penn State-dominated city. It was finally time to watch Penn State play in another bowl game in one of the most iconic stadiums in the country, Yankee Stadium.
Christian Hackenberg showed no signs of a sophomore slump and only signals of hope for the future, throwing for 371 yards and four touchdowns at 68 percent completion clip. The game was an absolute thriller as both sides scored back and forth and eventually went into overtime with the help of a clutch field goal by Sam Ficken.
Boston College was first to score in the additional frame, but the extra point sailed wide. After a Kyle Carter touchdown, Ficken drilled the point after and sprinted across the field. “Celebrate Good Times” blasted on the PA, players climbed into the stands, and James Franklin started yelling about culture. It was a great night to be a Penn State supporter.
Relive the highlights thanks to Penn State athletics:
Did we miss your favorite sports memory from the 2014-15 school year? Let us know in the comments!