UNIVERSITY PARK — Last season was not the best of years for the Penn State men’s soccer team.
The Nittany Lions got off to a good start, but never found their footing in the Big Ten and goals were definitely tough to find.
They have chalked that up to a rebuilding year and are ready with a clean slate for 2012.
The restart begins at 7 p.m. tonight when Penn State faces Stetson at Jeffrey Field.
Coach Bob Warming said improving the team’s work ethic, fitness and confidence was a key to returning his team to a conference contender.
“It’s been an evolution,” Warming said. “It wasn’t like we’re changing this starting in the fall, we started in January preparing for this. We’ve prepared for a lot of months.”
The start to the 2011 season was quite promising, with a 5-1-1 record before they opened the Big Ten schedule at Indiana. They only lost 1-0 to the Hoosiers, a top-10 team, but the season seemed to fall apart soon after, closing the regular season 2-7-3, including an 0-6 mark in the conference. They redeemed themselves by winning their first two Big Ten Tournament games to make the finals, but overall it was not what they were expecting.
The season starts anew now, and the Nittany Lions are glad to start over.
“I just think work ethic (changed),” senior midfielder John Gallagher said. “Last year was sort of a building year for us. We had a bunch of new transfers come in so we weren’t really on the same page with a lot of things but this year we have that year under our belt so we’re all on the same page. The guys are tuned in, working hard. If we all can just keep this work ethic up that we’ve had in these three preseason games we’ll be fine.”
As Warming pointed out, not only were there changes at Penn State, but there was a major talent turnover around the Big Ten with the graduation or early departures of several top players for pro careers.
“Two years ago we were the No. 1 power-rated conference in the country and it wasn’t close,” Warming said. “... Last year the league was without some stars and was also very young. I think the challenging thing is now all those guys are back. Almost no one lost anybody of significance this past year. I think we have a chance in the league of being No. 1 in the country again.”
Warming got plenty of opportunities to see what he has on his roster this year with three preseason games, capped by a 2-2 tie at No. 9 Maryland on Monday. Putting together a game like they had against the Terrapins injected a large dose of confidence, and Warming is thankful he had three chances to fiddle with his lineups.
“I think the difference where we were with the first preseason game and where we are now is remarkable,” he said. “I think the guys have made a lot of progress and the confidence level is higher. It’s given me a chance to experiment a little bit. I’m always curious about what system works best with a given group of players. I have never coached any two teams exactly the same way in 35 years. Every team is unique because the players are unique.”
“For us to go in there, on their home field, and do what we did, we had them on their heels in the first half,” said Gallagher, who had two assists last year. “We are very confident going into the season.”
Penn State will certainly be looking for more offense. They tallied just 19 goals in 22 games. The top four scorers have all returned in Minh Vu, Julian Cardona, Hasani Sinclair and Jordan Tyler. Vu and Cardona led the team with four goals each.
While they may have struggled filling the nets, they were even more stingy on the defensive end. Anchored by Andrew Wolverton, now a sophomore, playing every minute in goal, Penn State gave up just 14 scores and Wolverton posted 12 shutouts.
“We’re confident in him,” Gallagher said. “He’s confident in himself. He’s a great goalkeeper and we’re behind him 100 percent.”
Wolverton can’t rest on his past efforts, however, with the addition to the roster of Emmanuel Martin, a native of France where he has been playing club ball.
Several other newcomers also expect to have an impact, including redshirt sophomore Eli Dennis, who transferred from American, and freshman midfielder Drew Klingenberg. State College product Kelton Cheney also has been trying to earn field time with the Nittany Lions.
“He is learning it’s a higher level of fitness here to play,” Warming said. “He’s one of those kids that works hard every single day in training. To me, that’s a basis for becoming better than you were and maybe even great. He has a real knack around the goal. Physically he was so dominant in club and high school, but now he’s playing against guys four years older than him. He can’t quite use that as well as he did. He’s learning and he has a chance to be really good.”
For all the Nittany Lions, it’s a fresh start to bring the program back to the top of the conference.
“We have made a lot of progress since the preseason began,” Warming said. “We’re looking forward to a wonderful season.”