Season Preview: Women’s Soccer Has Second Championship In Sight, But Major Questions Loom
2015 was the culmination of years of vast achievement for Penn State women’s soccer. It was a year that featured the program’s sixth Big Ten Championship, fifth College Cup appearance, and a National Championship — the Nittany Lion’s first.
The 2016 team would always have big shoes to fill, but coming into the season ranked No. 2 in the country, Penn State appears to have the potential to repeat some of the magic from last season.
“Now the challenge changes,” Head Coach Erica Dambach said. “Now you’ve got to focus on how do you sustain the level of excellence. That’s a brand new challenge and you could argue even a tougher challenge because you can’t rest on it, you can’t sit back. You’ve got a big bulls-eye on you’re back and now it becomes even harder because you’re everyone’s biggest game.”
The biggest losses from Dambach’s squad comes from the three captains who have graduated. MAC Hermann Trophy winner Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez leaves a huge hole to replace in the midfield. Forward Mallory Weber and goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom have also been invaluable members of this Penn State squad.
However, if there was one somewhat surprising bright spot from the 2015 tournament run, it was the emergence of the underclassmen. Eight regular starters from last season were underclassmen and seven were either freshman or sophomores.
Megan Schafer may have been the biggest breakout star among the underclassmen during the 2015 season. The starting forward who will be entering her junior year tallied 13 goals and four assists during her sophomore campaign. She may have flown under the radar with star seniors on the roster last season, but she’ll be the main focus for the team in 2016 coming into the year shortlisted for the MAC Hermann Trophy.
Frannie Crouse, another junior forward, was a key force on the left wing during the 2015 NCAA Tournament with a performance that landed her on the College Cup All-Tournament team. With the success Penn State had in a 4-2-3-1 formation during the National Championship run, Crouse may return to the left wing role that left opposing defenses mismatched down the stretch.
The lone senior on the roster may be the key to success for a midfield left with several key absences from last season. Nickolette Driesse, an attacking midfielder, transferred to Penn State from Florida State after winning the National Championship with the Seminoles in 2014. With two College Cup runs in hand, Driesse brings a wealth of much needed experience to an incredibly young side.
“Those are definitely very big shoes to fill,” Driesse said of taking over as captain from Rodriguez, Eckerstrom, and Weber. “They communicated to us and they were definitely willing to lead us. I know that that’s what it’s going to take. We’ve got to step up big time. If we can do that, hopefully we can be as successful as last year.”
At face value, this team looked primed for success. However, one major question loomed throughout the offseason for the Nittany Lions: How would the FIFA U-20 World Cup affect the available roster? The answer, finally, is the redshirting of four likely starters and the loss of the starting goalkeeper.
Penn State announced Friday that Emily Ogle, Maddie Elliston, Ellie Jean, and Kaleigh Riehl would withdraw from school for the fall semester and redshirt during the 2016 season with the expectation that they’ll be named to the United States U-20 World Cup roster. The U-20 World Cup will take place in late November into early December, meaning these players would miss the entirety of the postseason if they were to use a year of eligibility this year.
Defense will be the biggest hit for Penn State with these absences. Three of the four redshirts are defenders and have all been regular starters at some point during the past two seasons. Captain Brittany Basinger and star center back Elizabeth Ball will play a crucial role of integrating two new defenders into the starting eleven.
“I’ve seen Britt Basinger be the leader of that group,” Dambach said of her defense. “She’s got a great presence and a great voice. Elizabeth Ball is playing with a ton of confidence right now and obviously has a couple years of experience. Then were bringing the other players along. We’ve got some young players with a ton of experience at youth national team levels. They’re being good followers right now and they’re taking to the leadership of Ball and Britt.”
Of all the absences for the U-20 World Cup, none may be bigger than that of Emily Ogle. Ogle, a deep-lying midfielder, was a crucial playmaker partnered next to Rodriguez during the NCAA Tournament last season. She scored seven times in 2015, four of which came in the NCAA Tournament. Finding two replacements in central midfield, especially with the impact Ogle and Rodriguez had, will be a tough task for Dambach this season.
Rose Chandler, the longtime heir to standout goalkeeper Eckerstrom, will have to wait another year to suit up for the Nittany Lions as she will also likely miss the entire season to compete in the U-20 World Cup. Unfortunately, Chandler will lose a year of eligibility as she has already been redshirted two seasons ago. Dambach alluded that freshman Amanda Dennis may start in goal this season. Dennis has been a fixture in a number of U.S. youth national team rosters over the past few seasons, so she does have some experience competing at a high level.
Penn State will start its season with a tough slate. The Nittany Lions face No. 6 West Virginia Friday night. The Mountaineers will be missing two of their best players who are currently playing in the Olympics for Canada, but this team will provide a good test as to where Penn State stacks up at the beginning of the season. The Nittany Lions get two more tests decent tests against touted opponents August 26 at home versus No. 16 BYU and September 2 at UCLA before starting the Big Ten season.
Penn State come in as the top school in the Big Ten preseason poll, but expect challenges from No. 10 Rutgers and Wisconsin, led by MAC Hermann Trophy favorite Rose Lavelle.
Several key names may be missing from the opening day roster, but Penn State still has the potential to be one of the top teams in the country if all goes right for the fresh-faced Nittany Lions.
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As THON weekend approaches, a fundraising year like no other in THON history wraps up.
“Whether this team is a No. 3 seed or or a No. 4 seed, they’re going to have a real opportunity to be in the Sweet Sixteen. If you’re a Penn State basketball fan, that’s like the Final Four. That week of hype and attention gives a team a brand.”
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