Women’s Soccer Ready For National Title Defense
Penn State opens its NCAA Tournament title defense Friday night against Bucknell at 6 p.m.
Coming off an upset loss in the Big Ten quarterfinals to Rutgers, the Nittany Lions have some work to do if they are to replicate some of the magic from last season. But with mostly new faces in the starting XI, Coach Erica Dambach feels it’s important this team creates its own identity instead of trying to live up to past successes.
“In terms of comparing the two years, I think last year’s long gone,” Dambach said. “You’ve got a reputation and you try to live up to some reputation. We talk a lot about that. That’s what other people think about you and that’s what outsiders feel. All that matters is the way that they handle themselves and what we know to be the truth in the locker room.”
Dambach believes her team has done well to separate itself from the 2015 team and move forward, following up the historic season with an 11-4-4 record and a Big Ten regular season title. But what matters is the NCAA Tournament, and if the Nittany Lions are to avoid a similar opening round disappointment like what happened in the Big Ten Tournament, they will need to make some strides starting with the game against Bucknell.
Bucknell, the school where Dambach started her coaching career as a graduate assistant in 1997, finished with its best record ever at 14-1-2 and is making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2005. Led by one of the top goalscorers in the nation, Kendall Ham, the Bison will be looking to grab its first win ever in 20 games against Penn State.
“They’ve had a great run,” Dambach said. “I’ve actually tracked them pretty closely all season long. Kelly [Cook] has done a nice job with their program. They have some great goalscorers and it will be a good contest.”
After playing the entire NCAA Tournament at home until the neutral-site College Cup last season, Penn State will have to travel for the remainder of its tournament if the Nittany Lions continue to advance.
The second and third round is played at the location of the highest seed in the group of four — for Penn State it would likely be No. 2 Georgetown. With a win over Bucknell, Penn State would likely play No. 3 Virginia in Washington D.C.
The travel, while not as easy as staying at Jeffrey Field, isn’t horrible for Penn State. The shorter travel isn’t being looked at as a huge benefit for Dambach’s squad, however.
“I think it’s nice to think about traveling to a place where fans could go,” Dambach said. “I think that’s the only benefit. The NCAA Tournament’s about doing new things, different things.”
The Nittany Lions haven’t faced any of the likely opponents in their opening rounds, which falls into their seeking new challenges narrative. But should they advance to the second round, the Nittany Lions may be facing a new challenge that this team hasn’t seen recently — coming into the game as underdogs.
No. 3 Virginia, led by former United States U-20 National Team coach Steve Swanson, has been a powerhouse the past several seasons — going to at least the quarterfinals each of the last three seasons. Coming in with a record 13-4-2 and wins over No. 2 Notre Dame and College Cup contender Oklahoma, Virginia is going to be a difficult opponent for the Nittany Lions.
This year, Penn State has faced a number of quality opponents, but lacks a marquee win against one of the teams. It still has showed the potential to knock off one of these teams — with draws against No. 1 West Virginia and No. 4 Minnesota.
“When we show up, when we perform, we’re as good as any team in the country,” Dambach said. “We have not shown that we have the ability to do it consistently. That’s what last week and this next week is about, making sure that everyday at training we’re getting the same effort and the same output.”
The Nittany Lions are going to have to do that without All-Big Ten Freshman Team honoree Laura Freigang who will be competing with Germany in the upcoming U-20 Women’s World Cup.
In her absence, different players are going to have to step up. Dambach was confident in one player in particular to take on that spot in the attack — the versatile midfielder/defender Salina Williford.
“Salina Williford has had a very good week for us,” Dambach said. “We’ve seen a lot more offensive output from her over the past week. We’ve brought her in and talked to her about her role and how we want to give her some more freedom to get involved in the attack.”
Penn State has made a run to the quarterfinals of the tournament in three of the last four seasons. Despite all of the departures and absences, the team churned out another impressive season. It has the opportunity to make another run, but it’s still going to take something special for this team to go deep into this tournament.
As they head into their 22nd consecutive tournament, it’s that something special that the Nittany Lions seem ready to do.