Field Hockey Hopes Big Ten Tournament Momentum Continues Into NCAA Tournament
Penn State opens its NCAA Tournament on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. against Princeton. It hasn’t been back to the Final Four since 2007, but Penn State will have one of its best chances in the past couple of years with home field advantage through the quarterfinals.
The program hasn’t been as prolific in recent years as it once was. Going into last weekend, Penn State had won the Big Ten Tournament just twice this century with its last coming in 2012. The team also posted a losing record last season for the second time in school history and missed the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time since Char Morett-Curtiss’ coaching career with the Nittany Lions began in 1987.
Penn State entered the season ranked No. 18 — a mark the Nittany Lions would have to improve upon if they were to make the 16-team NCAA Tournament. Fast forward three months and this young team earned the No. 4 seed and a pair of home games in the tournament as Big Ten Champions.
In an incredible weekend in College Park, Maryland, the Nittany Lions churned out win after win in the Big Ten Tournament culminating in a 2-1 come from behind upset of top-seeded Maryland on its own turf for Morett-Curtiss’ 500th win.
“It was just a special moment,” Morett-Curtiss said. “We battled all year against the top teams in the conference. Putting three great games together in four days is really a testament to the mindset of our team and also just the resiliency and composure.”
With the conference tournament victory, Penn State jumped in the rankings from No. 6 and earned the final seed in the NCAA Tournament, which gives it the right to host its region.
This is the first time the Nittany Lions will host an NCAA Tournament game at the Penn State Field Hockey Complex since 2012. The importance of playing at home, especially with Penn State leading the nation in attendance, isn’t lost on the coach.
“It’s just nice to be back home in our bed, in front of our crowd.” Morett-Curtiss said. “I think it’s a great home field advantage especially when you see the numbers that come out to watch these girls play”
The Nittany Lions open tournament play with the Princeton Tigers. This will be the second meeting this season between the two teams with Penn State defeating Princeton 4-2 in early October.
The challenge will be a bit different for Penn State this time with U-21 National Team member Sophia Tornetta back in action after missing the game against the Nittany Lions with a stress fracture. Tornetta has scored eight goals and is third on the team in points despite missing almost half the season with the injury.
Should Penn State advance, it will face either Michigan or Virginia — teams that are a combined 0-3 against Penn State this season. Virginia fell to the Nittany Lions 3-0 in early September and Michigan has played two tight games with the Nittany Lions including a 1-0 Big Ten semifinal loss.
With the previous experiences in the back of their minds, the Nittany Lions are ready to go back to battle against these familiar opponents.
“I do think it does help your confidence,” Morett-Curtiss said. “But we also recognize that at this time of the year everybody’s a little bit stronger and everybody’s healthy at this point. We really need to continue to focus on our game.”
Since making a run to the title game in 2007, Penn State hasn’t made it through its region and to the Final Four. Both times the Penn State Field Hockey Complex has hosted since 2007, the Nittany Lions were eliminated by Syracuse.
Playing as they have been, the Nittany Lions could make a run. But inexperience might be the biggest thing holding them back from making it out of their region this weekend.
“For this young team who really doesn’t have tournament experience from last year, I think it’s trying to overcome the nervousness at the start of the game,” Morett-Curtiss said. “We need to rely on our senior class who’s been there before. I’m hoping they can add a little bit more confidence and composure to the team.”
If Penn State stays composed this weekend, it could be taking Morett-Curtiss to her sixth Final Four.