Tough Opening Weekend Good Test For Young Penn State Field Hockey
After last year’s disappointing 6-1 first-round loss to Harvard in the NCAA tournament, Penn State field hockey already had a rough road ahead going into the 2019 season.
It doesn’t help when you lose seven starters to graduation. It also doesn’t help to start off the year playing two of the top teams in the nation.
Ranked No. 9 in the country to start off the year, Penn State plays No. 3 Duke in Durham on Friday before visiting No. 11 Virginia on Sunday to cap off what will be a tough opening weekend.
However, head coach Char Morett-Curtiss appears un-phased by the difficult start her team has. She views it as an opportunity to figure out issues right away.
“I think right from the start you know where your strengths and weaknesses are and if you have to make changes,” she said. “Opening against such strong teams gives a purpose to your preseason — you can’t wait to make a fix here and there.”
This season has already seen plenty of change for Morett-Curtiss’ squad. The Nittany Lions have only four returning starters. One of them though is last season’s freshman phenom Anna Simon, who led the team in goals and finished second in scoring.
Newly-minted captains Madison Morano and Madison Hutson will also be back for their senior and junior years, respectively, rounding out the team’s shortlist of veterans.
Despite the youth of the team, both Hutson and Morett-Curtiss are confident that this team can find success. Huston has been leading the movement to acclimate the younger players to the team’s philosophy. She hasn’t found anything about it very difficult.
“I think that they’re just all really hard workers and really open to fixing something,” Hutson said. “None of them are afraid to talk to us which is super awesome, and they’re so open to learning.”
Morett-Curtiss has also put an emphasis on winning close games and getting the younger players some much-needed game experience. Last season, three of the Nittany Lions’ four regular-season losses were by just one goal, including a heartbreaking double-overtime loss at home and a 1-0 loss to Michigan at home off a last-minute shot.
To combat this, Morett-Curtiss has thrown her underclassmen into as many overtime situations as possible during the offseason, especially in their two preseason scrimmages against Syracuse and St. Joseph’s.
“When we took the field for overtime situations against Syracuse and St. Joe’s, I don’t think there was a single returner on the field,” she said. “It’s such a different complexion from last year’s team, which had the advantage of playing together for three to four years.
“This team doesn’t have that, but what they’ve done and created is that they’re always looking for each other. That’s what makes this team special in my mind”
One of the biggest holes Penn State had coming into the season was in goal. Replacing the value Jenny Rizzo brought to the team was a tough task indeed, but Morett-Curtiss has found her answer in redshirt freshman Brie Barraco. After a solid offseason in which the goalie elevated her play and her leadership, the Allentown product has already won over many of her teammates including Hutson.
“Brie’s just been really solid back there. She’s a great communicator. I’m really excited to have her behind me,” said Hutson. “With Brie in the backfield, it lessens the pressure on me to communicate since she’s already stepped up to the role she needed to fill. She’s such a voice back there and she wants what she wants, but in a good way.”
And not only have the new faces been stepping up their game, but they’ve also been thrown right into a changing play style. Penn State has always been an up-tempo team when compared to other colleges, but Morett-Curtiss has cranked that dial up to 11 this season.
“We’re just ready to attack,” she said. “Our mentality this season is just to be aggressive and attack. It’s going to be a hectic game in some regards. We’re going to throw the ball away, but we’re gonna work really hard to get it back.”
A key part of this retooled style is an emphasis on player versatility and positional fluidity. Under this faster speed of play, every player is expected to be comfortable playing any position — including forwards playing as backs, backs pulling up into the midfield, and so on.
It’s this versatility that Morett-Curtiss has really focused on, especially with the younger players. Team leaders like Hutson have done their best to help guide the young players through the new style, and they’ve needed very little poking or prodding.
“No one has been like, ‘I don’t want to play that position’ or ‘I don’t know how to play that position,’” she said. “Everybody is like, ‘Okay, let me try it’ and if it doesn’t work we make adjustments. But no one’s just shut down or been afraid to do anything.”
With a faster style of play and a host of bright, energetic young talent led by Barraco, this year’s iteration of Penn State field hockey is ready for anything. But Morett-Curtiss’ core philosophy has remained constant throughout the chaotic offseason. A focus on chemistry and togetherness that makes all of her teams like family to one another. This season is no different.
“We may not be as talented, we may not be as experienced, but we’re going to have that chemistry and we’re going to have each other’s backs. This year, I think we have all of that,” Morett-Curtiss said.
After their opening weekend, the Nittany Lions have another away game against Delaware before returning home to State College. Their first home game will be played at 6 p.m. on September 13 against Old Dominion.
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