Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 6 Penn State (Women)
Penn State has reached the NCAA quarterfinals in three of the last four seasons. Are the Nittany Lions ready to take the next step?
Emi Smith is back after a breakout season in goal, Abby Smucker is a versatile player who will make an impact all over the field and Jenna Mosketti can be a dominant player. Perhaps the biggest question is can Penn State replace the void from a very strong departed senior class, led by Tatum Coffey and Maggie McCormick?
Penn State at a Glance
2015 Record: 16-5
3 Big Things
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Minus a slight dip in 2014, Penn State has been on a steady climb since Doherty’s hire. Not only have the Nittany Lions won more, but also the quality of their wins has consistently improved as they’ve knocked off better and better teams. That trend puts them on track toward their goal of moving back into contention for a national title.
1. Replacements must step up.
The Nittany Lions spent the fall exploring how to replace almost one-third of their point production. They graduated All-Americas Maggie McCormick, the program’s all-time assists leader, and last year’s top goal scorer, Tatum Coffey, part of a class that raised the bar for the program. Penn State’s next four biggest point producers return, and freshmen Madison Carter and Kelly Daggett are ready to fill some big shoes. “We have some amazing players,” Doherty said. “The more of them that can step up into impact positions, the better we’ll be. The more they bring that to every game, the farther we can go.”
2. Defensive experience is a strength.
Penn State can rely on its experience at the defensive end. They return four of their five starting midfielders, plus two starting defenders and All-America goalie Emi Smith. “I’d rather have a young offense than a young defense,” Doherty said. “I’m really happy we’re returning so many experienced players on defense. Having been in big games, it’s such a help. You can always design plays for your offense. Having players who know how to react to game situations makes my job easier.” And with 83 percent of its draw control returning, the Nittany Lions have another reliable way to get their offense the ball.
3. Expectations continue to rise.
In the fall, Penn State took on Syracuse, Maryland, Louisville and the U.S. national team. “That was a good confidence builder to see we’re competitive and in the mix,” Doherty said. Penn State comes off its fourth straight NCAA tournament, its first such streak in 24 years. The Nittany Lions’ 16 wins were their most since 1989. “Every year I’ve been here, it’s been a continued increase in expectations and performance,” Doherty said. “Winning the Big Ten and competing in it allows us to compete with the best teams in the country. It’s where we want to be. The players have bought in and have maintained a high level of play.”
* returning starters
Smucker began her collegiate career on an 11-game scoring streak as a midfielder. Last year, she filled a void when she moved back to defense and went on to become the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player. She returns to the midfield and will contribute at both ends of the field.
Carter showed her potential in fall ball when she led Penn State in scoring. She fits right in the starting lineup. “She has great presence,” Doherty said. “Great size. She can challenge. She’s a great cutter. She’ll help out our attack deficit this year.”
Bleistein doesn’t do anything flashy, but she’s integral to the team. “She just keeps getting better and better,” Doherty said. “She does the nitty-gritty for us. She might make more of those game-changing plays for us this year.”
Biggest Question Mark
Erika Spilker's Return
The loss of Spilker last year forced Penn State to move Smucker to defense. Back from the knee injury that cost her last season, the Nittany Lions are counting on Spilker to be the leader of this year’s defense.
Junior midfielder Abby Smucker should return to her natural position on offense after shoring up a need on defense last season. The versatile athlete will likely be one of the top players in the country this season. (Greg Wall)
What rival coaches say about the Nittany Lions
"I think for them, last year was a breakthrough moment to win the Big Ten championship and go on and go deep into the tournament. Missy (Doherty) has done an excellent job with her team. She consistently brings in good freshmen that impact, and they bring back their goalie (Emi Smith) who was a big part of their success last year, so I think they are going to be tough."
"While the loss of Maggie McCormick and Tatum Coffey will hurt, Penn State’s performances against Northwestern and playing on the road in the NCAA Tournament were impressive."
"Need to replace McCormick with a new go-to X girl to get the ball to the high drivers."
"Have lost a ton of the talent that saw them take the Big 10 championship last season, but with such incredible athletes I am sure they will see the opportunity to close the holes and play a similar fast paced, exciting style of lacrosse. Middies like Cyr and Lazo who have been able to fly under the radar will attract a lot more of the attention this year."
"Fast and powerful out of the midfield, great transition offense, ton of dodgers on the offensive end."
Games in which Emi Smith saved 10 or more shots for the Nittany Lions. The senior is back after career bests of 9.47 GAA and 46.7 save percentage in her breakout 2015 season. Smith’s 158 saves are the second most by a Penn State goalie in the last 11 years, and her presence gives the team confidence.
April 23 Northwestern
This showdown determines Maryland’s biggest Big Ten threat. Penn State cleared a major hurdle when it swept Northwestern in two meetings last year. The Nittany Lions will be looking to establish the sort of dominance it takes to be a national contender, and what better way than keeping ahead of another program looking to return to the top?
The Nittany Lions added Johns Hopkins to the schedule this year. Penn State won their NCAA first-round matchup last year, and Johns Hopkins will join the Big Ten in 2017. “Our conference is going to be really hard,” Doherty said. “I look forward to it. I like a challenge. Our goal is to compete like one of the top teams in the country.”
Penn State has reached the NCAA quarterfinals in three of the last four years. Can they advance to the final weekend without some of the big names that helped start their resurgence?
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