UNIVERSITY PARK — There may only be seven teams in the Big Ten for men’s soccer, but it still proves to be a challenging conference.
Penn State won a share of the conference title last season, but did not join four other teams that earned bids to the NCAA Tournament, and the fourth-place team in the Big Ten, Indiana, walked away with the national title.
“Our conference is pretty tough,” senior defender Martin Seiler said. “It’s awesome to play in a conference like that because we get challenged every game and I can see us on top of the conference again just like last year.”
Indiana is the preseason No. 1 nationally once again, but the Nittany Lions like their chances to survive and get back into the NCAA Tournament, and head coach Bob Warming doesn’t feel the Hoosiers are the clear-cut favorite.
“Every coach I’ve talked to in the league, I ask them where they put people and they’re like, ‘We have no idea,’” last year’s conference Coach of the Year said. “Just because they won the national championship (Big Ten coaches) voted Indiana No. 1 in the league, but we think every single game is just going to be unbelievable this year. A lot of young players in the league last year, a lot of returning faces. I think every game is just going to be a terrific battle.”
The Nittany Lions open their season at 7 p.m. Friday at Jeffrey Field against Radford at Jeffrey Field, then host Central Connecticut on Sunday.
Warming, whose team put together a 6-0-2 record in the spring and was 1-1-1 in three exhibition matches the last two weeks, feels his team will be competitive because of an offensive-minded team that has a strong defensive core.
The Nittany Lions bring back 6-foot-5 junior Andrew Wolverton, who is now in his third season as the starting goalkeeper, along with a pair of solid senior center backs in Seiler and Akil Howard.
“I like it because I already have good chemistry with Martin (Seiler) and Andrew (Wolverton) so it makes everything a lot easier for me,” Howard said. “And then gelling to get forward, it’s really easy because we have a really good core in the middle with Grant (Warming) and Owen (Griffith), so moving the ball is a lot easier getting out of the back.”
Wolverton and Howard spent the summer together in Florida on a professional development team, augmenting their playing and communication skills.
Warming has confidence in the offense, even if there isn’t much of the way of goal-scoring experience on the roster.
Penn State scored only 24 goals in 17 matches last season, and only three players who scored — at one goal apiece — have returned to the team this season in Howard, Griffith and forward Mikey Minutillo.
Beefing up the offense will be important in the tough conference.
“We want to win the ball back as quickly as possible,” said Warming, whose team was 9-5-2 last season. “To win the ball back as quickly as possible, you expose yourself by pressing more players forward in the field. … To do that you better have two great guys in the back who can cover a lot of ground, make sure nothing’s going to happen bad.”