UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s an annual battle that goes back before anyone on this Penn State field hockey team was even in high school.
The Nittany Lions open the season against Old Dominion.
It’s a match-up of two traditional field hockey powers, and it rarely disappoints.
The teams meet again to open their campaigns with a 5 p.m. contest tonight at the Field Hockey Complex.
“It’s a challenge — that’s what I love about it,” head coach Char Morett said. “Every year in my 26 years I say it gives a great purpose to preseason that you know that you really have to prepare and be on top of your practice every session.”
Almost always the game makes a statement for the winner, giving them a mental edge for the rest of the season, and frequently both teams come in with big season expectations and such is the case again this year.
The No. 9 Nittany Lions return much of their starting lineup, including their top scorers from 2011 and goalkeeper, from a team that fell in the NCAA regional finals.
The No. 3 Monarchs, in their final season under retiring longtime head coach Beth Anders, were an NCAA finalist last year.
The opening game is just a taste of what lies ahead for Penn State, which has half the preseason top 10 on the schedule and nine of the top 20. No. 8 Virginia, which has two players who just returned from playing in the Olympics, and No. 6 Connecticut, which knocked the Nittany Lions out of last year’s tournament on the way to the final four, follow on the slate in the coming week.
“You need to play a tough schedule,” said Morett, whose team has been in the NCAAs five of the last six years. “If you want to be playing for a national championship, you need to be challenged and you need to be challenged throughout your season.”
Morett’s team certainly returns plenty of offense. The top seven scorers from last season are back again, led by a 25-goal, seven-assist performance from senior Kelsey Amy and a four-goal, 20-assist season from Whitney Reddig.
The other end of the field is anchored by Ayla Halus, who posted four shutouts and a 1.56 goals-against average last season.
“I feel good about having Ayla back there with the experience taking on a tough team,” Morett said of the senior keeper facing the Monarchs today.
Where the Nittany Lions are a little more unsettled is in front of Halus, with Morett continuing to fiddle with the team’s lineup.
“Really what we need to do is get the right people in the right position,” Morett said. “We have a lot of talented backs, but we’re just really trying to find the right combination between our left back and our deep-center back, between our deep-center mid and our center back. We’re just trying to find that right combination between the right people.”
Morett also feels she has plenty of flexibility with much of her team able to cover positions both forward and back.
“Wherever she tells us to go,” senior midfielder- forward Hannah Allison said, “we’re going to try our hardest to play there.”
The roster has been augmented by Lauren Alwine, a former state Player of the Year in soccer at Lower Dauphin who completed her soccer career at Virginia and is now getting in one field hockey season at Penn State.
The Nittany Lions also have a trio of State College products in junior back Jackie Kenney, sophomore midfielder-back Amanda Dinunzio and freshman forward Ally Lauth.
The Nittany Lions have big goals for the coming season, and a good start can be made tonight against an old rival.
“We have a lot more depth than I think we realized initially,” Morett said. “The players have been working extremely hard. The tempo at practice has been very, very high. The intensity is high.”