Penn State is one of the teams to beat in the land of women’s soccer.
The Nittany Lions grabbed one of the four top seeds to the NCAA Tournament, which kicks off this weekend, after the bracket was announced Monday afternoon.
The Big Ten regular season champions will open the tournament Saturday night at Jeffrey Field, hosting Long Island University-Brooklyn at 6 p.m. in the first round.
Penn State (17-3-1) will be in the tournament for the 18th straight year, and is a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2007.
One of the major benefits of being a No. 1 seed is the Nittany Lions will not have to play away from Jeffrey Field, as long as they continue to win, until the NCAA’s College Cup semifinals, which will be held in San Diego on Nov. 30, and the finals on Dec. 2.
“Over the years here Jeffrey Field has gotten the reputation within the women’s soccer program as the place to be,” said head coach Erica Walsh, who guided the team to its 15th straight conference crown. “But it’s only been in the last couple years we’ve actually respected that statement and defended that turf. I do think this team plays in a way of honoring that reputation as the best place to play college soccer.”
Following the first round, Friday’s winner will face the winner of Hofstra and Boston College, who battle in another first-round contest.
The second and third rounds will be played Nov. 16 and 18, and the quarterfinals will be played Nov. 23, 24 or 25.
The other three seeds in Penn State’s quarter of the 64-team bracket are No. 2 Virginia, No. 3 Duke — which lost to Stanford in last year’s title game — and No. 4 Portland.
The other No. 1 seeds are the defending champion Cardinal, Brigham Young and Florida State. Two of Penn State’s three losses this season were to Stanford and BYU.
The other loss came against Illinois on Friday in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, and the Lions tied Michigan late in the season. Walsh said she would have understood if those games had cost her team a top spot.
“You look at those results, and if ultimately they decide to give you a No. 2 seed, all you have to do is look at yourself,” she said. “I wouldn’t blame the NCAA, but I did feel as though we put enough together to warrent a No 1 seed and I’m thrilled for the group.”
Walsh also had some good news to report — Maya Hayes, the Big Ten’s Forward of the Year, is expected to be back in practice this week and should play Saturday night. The junior had knocked heads with an Illini player on Friday as each tried to head the ball in the final minutes of the contest, and Hayes had to be helped from the field.
“She should be cleared to practice (today), if not it should be Wednesday,” Walsh said. “She has no symptoms, and neither does (freshman forward Mallory) Weber.”
Aside from a couple players who have been out most of the season, Walsh said she expects a deep roster ready to go.
“This is the healthiest we’ve been all year,” Walsh said. “Because of (Hurricane Sandy) we were forced to take a couple extra days off and these players are coming into the office literally bouncing because they have so much energy.”
The team is also feeling the energy inside Rec Hall and around the athletic programs around campus — the volleyball team is No. 2 in the nation, the field hockey team just wrapped up regular-season and Big Ten Tournament titles, the men’s soccer team earned a share of the conference crown, the two-time national champion wrestling team is about to start its season and the new ice hockey programs are off to strong starts.
“Just the pure energy on the campus right now, its contageous,” Walsh said. “We feel it in everything that we’re doing. There’s just such a feeling of excellence in Rec Hall right now.”