Penn State women's soccer completed the dream last year. After dominating the Big Ten for nearly every moment since Erica Dambach (née Walsh) stepped onto the touchline back in 2007, the team finally broke through and won the whole dang thing. The tournament run, which culminated with a 1-0 victory over the Duke Blue Devils sparked by national player of the year Raquel Rodriguez, was incredible, as Penn State's defense never broke while the offense supplied goals by the bunches. However, the 2016 season is upon us, and the Nittany Lions are ready to look forward and try to repeat.
Let's start with the biggest storyline heading into the season: the departures. Raqui Rodriguez, Britt Eckerstrom, and Mallory Weber were all key pieces in the title run. Add in Megan Ritchey and Teddy Chase and five players from last year's squad were lost to graduation. Obviously, that's the name of the game in college athletics, but the missing player list is far larger for Penn State than most other programs.
Maddie Elliston, Ellie Jean, Emily Ogle, and Kaleigh Riehl will all redshirt this season as they seek roster spots with the USWNT for the U-20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea this fall. Additionally, the status of Rose Chandler – who also could make the U-20 squad – is up in the air, as Dambach released a statement saying the talented goalkeeper will train with Penn State this season. Though Dambach recruits with the best and Penn State has depth in spades, losing that much talent would hurt any team's chances at a title.
Despite all those losses, Penn State still came into the season ranked second in the country behind only perennial powerhouse Florida State, because the players still in State College are elite. Frannie Crouse, Elizabeth Ball, Alina Ortega-Jurado, Charlotte Williams, and Grace Fisk join captains Brittany Basinger, Nickolette Driesse, and Megan Schafer to form one of the strongest contingents around. Williams, for her part, already leads the team with two goals in 141 minutes. Basinger, Driesse, and Schafer give the Nittany Lions a captain and vocal leader on each of their three positioning lines. Despite not scoring yet, Crouse is one of the nation's best threats in front of goal and creates chances just by virtue of being on the field.
Penn State has lined up the same way in its first two matches: Dennis; Ball, Basinger, Fisk, Ortega-Jurado; Driesse, Echard, Sheva, Williams; Crouse, Schafer in a relatively fluid 4-4-2 has been the early setup, with significant substitute minutes for Laura Freigang (who was named the inaugural Big Ten Freshman of the Week this year), Kristin Schnurr, and Salina Williford.
The game against No. 6 West Virginia in front of a packed Jeff is a good example of Penn State's strengths. Though the rust of the summer showed a bit and Penn State failed to convert many early chances in an eventual 1-1 draw, the Nittany Lions forced nine saves from WVU keeper Rylee Foster and generally played excellent soccer. That will be a common theme for the year. While the offensive firepower may not be quite at the level it was with Rodriguez leading the team, they have the ability to score with anyone in the country.
Goals are the fun part, of course, but the steel supplied in defense cannot be ignored. Basinger, Fisk, Ortega-Jurado, and Ball form one of the best back fours in the nation, capable of eliminating chances and feeding the play back up the pitch. They defend Amanda Dennis' net, and the freshman from San Diego is proving her mettle early on. She's allowed just two goals so far, and was the second-ranked goalkeeper in her recruiting class according to TopDrawer. Additionally, she has racked up a few caps with the United States' U-18 team.
Repeating as champions is an incredibly difficult task, especially with the major losses Penn State experienced this offseason. However, with some development from younger players and steps to the next level by veterans, paired with Dambach's consistently phenomenal coaching and tactical maneuvering, the Nittany Lions could easily find themselves competing for another National Championship.