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Ellie Wheeler’s Defensive Improvement Key To Penn State Women’s Soccer’s Success

Penn State women’s soccer began its season with two wins last week, and while sometimes shaky, the squad ultimately dominated both UMass and La Salle.

Following Sunday’s 4-0 win over the Explorers, the spotlight landed on Payton Linnehan, who scored a stunning hat trick in under four minutes.

While Linnehan was the player of the match, one interesting takeaway was head coach Erica Dambach implementing a new formation with three defenders instead of four. Sophomore Ellie Wheeler, who starred as a wingback last spring, has transitioned to the middle of the three-back, which is often touted as one of the toughest roles in all of soccer, especially for someone who became a defender just last year.

“This is a big ask of any player, to play in the center of a three-back system,” Dambach said. “Ellie was transformed into a defender last year. Watching her play, she’s smart. She understands it. She’s two-footed,. She’s athletic. She has every quality you need in that position.”

Dambach’s experiment has worked, and Wheeler’s defense is only getting stronger. The sophomore from Virginia was a valuable asset last season with her ability to get forward and overlap with the wingers, but the Nittany Lions don’t have a high demand for wide defensive players at the moment.

“I’ve watched her after two games, and I’ve just reaffirmed that she’s the absolute choice in our group to lead that back three. I think she’s been brilliant both games,” Dambach said.

The biggest improvement from Wheeler in the small sample size from this season is her ability to make important tackles.

In the first half against La Salle with the match still scoreless, she was tasked with defending a fast break. On an island with the attacker, Wheeler not only slowed her down but picked her pocket just outside the penalty box.

Defense may have been the worry heading into the season for Penn State. With the strength of her returning forwards, Dambach had to take some risks in the defense, but Wheeler has been more than up to lead a three-back that has consisted of Maddie Myers and Mieke Schiemann. Wheeler’s strong leadership as only a sophomore will be key for a relatively inexperienced backline.

“It’s definitely a little bit different,” Wheeler said. “We had some [events happen during the match] in which we had to make some changes. But I think it is going to make me a better defender.”

Regardless of Wheeler and Linnehan’s individually brilliant performances, Dambach still expects more from the group.

“I would’ve liked to see more out of the whole game. I thought La Salle was more aggressive. They wanted it more, and we had some individual brilliance,” Dambach said. “You could tell it was at the end of a tiring weekend for our group, and that excuse isn’t going to hold if we’re going to achieve what we want to achieve this year.”

The Nittany Lions’ schedule will soon get tougher, although this week the only test is against Hofstra. The match will kick off at 5 p.m. on Sunday at Jeffrey Field.

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About the Author

Otis Lyons

Otis is a sophomore majoring in print journalism and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He lives just north of San Francisco, and is a diehard San Jose Earthquakes fan. Feel free to send over your soccer hot takes to his twitter @otisnlyons1 and instagram @otislyons

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