It appears the Big Ten’s women’s soccer coaches have a better idea what Penn State has this season than the rest of the nation.
When the conference announced its preseason poll earlier this week, the Nittany Lions were the unanimous choice as the favorite. In early August, however, when the United Soccer Coaches Association’s annual preseason coaches’ poll came out, four Big Ten teams made the top 25 — but Penn State was nowhere to be found.
Coach Erica Dambach chalked the disparity up to national poll voters looking at last year’s results, and not what her team has this season, which kicks off at 7 p.m. Friday at Jeffrey Field against No. 8 Brigham Young.
“It’s a reflection of the past,” she said earlier this week as her team plays the annual opening event of the Penn State sports year. If the team was overlooked nationally, it won’t be for long. Six of the team’s first seven matches are against ranked teams, including trips to No. 1 West Virginia and No. 11 Virginia sandwiched around a visit from No. 6 North Carolina to begin September.
Two other national polls give the team a lot more love: Soccer America has the Lions No. 3, while topdrawersoccer.com puts them No. 1.
Dambach knows she’s got one extremely solid team from end to end, quickly answering a question about her team’s biggest strength — depth.
“We have a lot of different combinations,” Dambach said, “a lot of different players that can step in and contribute right away, and then some young players that are starting to come on a little bit as well.”
What makes the group stand out is the return of five players who missed all of last season while playing with the U.S. national under-20 team in the World Cup. Midfielder Emily Ogle, keeper Rose Chandler and backs Kaleigh Riehl, Ellie Jean and Maddie Elliston were gone all of the fall semester with the national program, after helping Penn State win the 2015 national championship. A sixth player, midfielder Laura Freigang, missed part of the season playing for Germany in the same World Cup.
Their absence gave plenty of extra field time to others last fall.
“A lot of girls had chances to try other positions, get more minutes and experience playing in big games,” junior midfielder Marissa Sheva said. “I think the more experience we can get everyone on the team, the better we’ll be.”
The biggest difference will be seen on the back line with Riehl, Jean and Elliston joining returning starters Elizabeth Ball and Brittany Basinger.
“We have so much depth, especially in the back line,” Sheva said. “That’s really great knowing that, no matter who’s on the field we just have a great group of girls behind us.”
Behind them are keepers Chandler and Amanda Dennis, who posted a 0.92 goals-against average starting every game last season.
Dambach declined to name a starter for Friday, and plans to get both on the field, looking game-day matchups to choose a starter.
“They both have their own strengths and they want to utilize those strengths,” she said. “I can’t imagine it’s going to be the same one week-in and week-out.”
While the defense appears more than sound, the team could use a little more of a scoring threat. The Lions netted just 37 goals all season, led by 12 and six, respectively, from returning forwards Frannie Crouse and Megan Shafer.
The addition of one of the nation’s top recruiting classes — ranked No. 4 in Divison I by topdrawersoccer.com — should provide a boost, as should the return of the quintet from the national program.
No matter what, Riehl is glad to be back “home” after missing last fall, and is ready to hit the field Friday.
“This is my family here,” Riehl said. “I’m really excited to be back with them and playing under the lights on Jeffrey (Field). You can’t get a better atmosphere than what they bring here at Penn State.”
Penn State women’s soccer
Head coach: Erica Dambach (11th season)
Last year: 12-5-4, Big Ten co-champions, lost to Virginia in NCAA second round
Returning starters: 9
Season opens: vs. No. 8 BYU, 7 p.m. Friday, Jeffrey Field