UNIVERISTY PARK — Bob Warming is no stranger to coaching in the NCAA Tournament, but the journey he took with this season’s Penn State team is one he is not all too familiar with.
Warming, who prior to coming to Penn State coached Creighton to more wins than any other coach in program history, did not have to experience being an underdog with the Bluejays much. During his 14 seasons with the team, he went to 11 national tournaments, including a trip to the College Cup semifinals in 2002.
Warming is back in the national field with the Nittany Lions for the first time since his first season with the team in 2010, but it’s a tournament appearance few probably expected. Entering the 2013 season, the team was ranked fifth in the seven-team Big Ten’s preseason coaches’ poll, but it ultimately won the conference’s regular season title.
“After losing all the seniors, being voted by the coaches fifth...and then to do what they’ve done is really a testament to them,” Warming said.
Now that the Nittany Lions are back, they are a battle-tested team who will be led in part by goalkeeper Andrew Wolverton when they play St. Francis Brooklyn at 7 p.m. Thursday at Jeffrey Field.
Wolverton has had a memorable season, recently earning Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year honors. The 6-foot-6 junior made 64 saves and shut out six opponents this season.
Wolverton said he was happy about the recognition he received for his season, but was quick to credit the back line ahead of him, too.
“Obviously, it’s a lot more than just me,” he said. “It’s got to be good defense and everything like that.”
Whether it is due to Wolverton or not, though, it has been hard to score on the Lions this season. They have allowed 16 goals all season, and their goals-against average (0.83) is second in the Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions’ opponents have been challenging at times, too. Eight have made the NCAA Tournament, and the Lions posted a 5-2-2 record against them, including a scoreless draw in the Big Ten Tournament opener with Indiana, who advanced after penalty kicks.
In that matchup with the Hoosiers, Wolverton recorded only one save, in the first overtime period.
“Against that powerful attack, he faced zero shots on goal for 90 minutes,” Warming said. “So that speaks a lot about what’s going on in front of him. But when the times have come when he’s had to come up big for us, he’s come up big.”
The experience against strong teams will be useful for the Lions when they take on the Terriers, who won this season’s Northeast Conference postseason championship.
“We’ve honed ourselves against the best teams in the country. There’s no surprise now,” Warming said. “There’s nobody out there that’s like, ‘Oh, they’re so much better if we have to face them.’ We’ve faced the best, and we’re 5-2-2 against the best. It’s incredible.”
Akil Howard will still be missing from the Nittany Lions’ defense because of a red card against Akron on Nov. 6, but he was also out against the Hoosiers.
The Terriers’ attack is led by Kevin Correa, who has tallied 13 goals and six assists. Warming described Correa as a “special player.” Gabriel Bagot is right behind him, with eight goals and three assists. They pose a threat Warming said his team will need to be prepared for.
“No one gets in the NCAA Tournament who’s bad,” Warming said. “So it’ll be a tough game.”