It was a different offseason for the Penn State women’s soccer team.
For the first time since 1998, the Nittany Lions enter a new season not as defending Big Ten champions.
Despite having one of the nation’s top offenses, Penn State fell short on several of its goals last season and heads into a new campaign with the same goals but a number of changes.
The No. 24 Nittany Lions start their season Friday — the first official sports event of a new school year on campus — when they host No. 12 West Virginia at 7:30 p.m. at Jeffrey Field in the Penn State Invitational.
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“We’re so pumped, so exited,” senior defender Whitney Church said. “What we have going on as a team right now is tremendous chemistry and it’s gone well. We’re really, really stoked to get the season going.”
Friday’s game will be preceded by Syracuse and Missouri at 5 p.m. On Sunday, the Mountaineers and Tigers will battle at noon, with the Nittany Lions and Orange meeting at 2:30 p.m.
The run of consecutive Big Ten regular-season titles was a conference record for any sport, but the 15 straight crowns ended with a third-place finish in 2013. The 7-4 conference record produced the most Big Ten losses in the program’s 20-year history.
“We were a little disappointed with how we did,” Church said. “That’s kind of driving us right now, making us really excited about what we have as a team right now. It’s made us more excited for the season.”
It was quite the letdown from the season before, when Penn State raced all the way to the NCAA Championship match.
This season brings even more changes, with a large freshman class after the loss of a number of key players. Graduation took 60 percent of last year’s offense, including three of the top five goal-scorers. Topping the departures is Maya Hayes, whose 71 career goals are third in program history.
Juniors Mallory Weber (7 goals, 8 assists) and Raquel Rodriguez (6 goals, 9 assists) are the top returning scorers from an offense that netted 60 goals last season — an average of 2.61 goals per game that ranked sixth in Division I.
“We’ve still got a lot of big goal-scorers on this team,” said coach Erica Walsh, whose team was picked by her fellow coaches to return to the top of the Big Ten this season. “We have a good crop of upperclassmen that are proven goal-scorers, and then you’ve got some pretty special young players.”
Nittany Lion fans should expect a number of freshmen to be making an impact right away.
The recruiting class, which includes 11 freshmen on the 25-woman roster, was rated second-best in the nation by topdrawersoccer.com earlier this month when practices began, trailing only Stanford, and Walsh figures at least five freshmen will be on the field this weekend.
Leading the group are forward Megan Shafer, who was Pennsylvania’s Gatorade Player of the Year after netting 102 goals at Neshaminy, and defender Maddie Elliston, a two-time Nebraska State Player of the Year.
Three other freshmen singled out by Walsh are forwards Elizabeth Ball and Frannie Crouse and midfielder Emily Ogle, who has been working with the U.S. under-18 national team.
“We have a huge freshman class,” Church said. “A lot of the preseason has been a pretty big learning curve, but it’s all coming along great. The speed at which these freshmen, and even us, have learned together and remembered all of our concepts, it’s going really fast and worked out really well.”
Given all the new faces, it may take a while for the Nittany Lions to get comfortable.
The goals will remain the same in the long term, but the short term will have different priorities.
“Right now it’s about process goals,” Walsh said. “We have been making good progress, but through this first stretch of tough games, we’re going to have to focus on the quality of the play and the quality of the improvement.”
Church will anchor the back line, which also lost a pair of starters, but redshirt junior Britt Eckerstrom returns to her post in net after logging all but 85 minutes of the team’s goalkeeper time in net. The defense racked up six shutouts last season — and had five in five spring games.
She will be pushed by another top recruit, Rose Chandler, who just joined the team after spending the summer with the U.S. under-20 team at the FIFA World Cup in Canada.
Also on that U-20 team was sophomore defender Brittany Basinger, who has been taking it easy this week in practices and Walsh was unsure if she would be playing Friday.
At least for the first few weeks of preseason sessions, Walsh has liked what she has seen.
“The 2014 team is starting to find its own identity,” Walsh said. “I really like what they’re all about. There’s a real good feeling of blue-collar and grit to them. I’m proud of what this group is becoming.”