How do you view the season for the Penn State men’s soccer team?
At one point they were the hottest team in the country, the last remaining unbeaten team and climbing the national polls.
The Nittany Lions were stopping practically every shot, posting shutout after shutout, and appeared to be rolling toward a top seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
But soon after the calendar turned to October, the season also took a turn, and it seemed Penn State could not find another win.
Now the Nittany Lions have a chance to regain what they once had, and while it is not exactly a chance to push a reset button, it is an opportunity to brush aside all that was troubling them as the regular season wound down.
Penn State (12-5-1) hosts Hartwick (6-9-4) at 7 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s one-and-done,” coach Bob Warming said. “But we look at the things we’re doing well, we look at the things we’re not doing so well, and we are still trying to improve.”
On Oct. 4, after Warming’s team had blanked Rutgers 1-0, the Nittany Lions were up to No. 3 national in the country, had just won their seventh straight game, held a 10-0-1 record and earned their ninth shutout of the year.
After a week off, they went down to Maryland, which had been struggling through the early part of the season, and was overwhelmed 4-0. It started a stretch of five losses in seven games while getting outscored 12-5.
Still, Penn State held onto the top spot in the Big Ten standings all the way until their final conference game, a 2-1 double-overtime loss to Northwestern. The Wildcats scored the winner with 100 seconds left in the second extra frame, and had the Nittany Lions held on for the tie, they would have locked up the conference title again. Instead, Maryland finished with the title.
But playing in the Big Ten, rated as one of the nation’s toughest conferences, reality was bound to catch up with the Nittany Lions at some point.
“You lose games — it’s the nature of our sport,” Warming said. “No one goes through this thing, who’s in a good conference, goes through undefeated. It doesn’t happen.”
It didn’t help the team had issues with health and depth, that players were exhausted and trying to keep up with class work while trying to keep the team at its high standing.
After falling 1-0 to Michigan State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament last week, the players got a few days off to recover and recharge, and there have even been a few who have not practiced at all. Warming said some may even require surgery after the season is over.
But now they have to ramp their play back up for the sprint to the finish line.
The first hurdle is Hartwick, the champion of the Sun Belt Conference. The Hawks have been on the opposite track as the Nittany Lions, starting the season 0-6-4 but winning five of their last seven.
Hartwick certainly will have a unique flavor on the field. All but seven of the 24 men on the roster arrived from a foreign country, with Scotland, Denmark, Columbia, Venezuela, Jamaica and Australia among the home nations.
“A lot of savvy, a lot of composure,” Warming said. “A lot of ways that can throw you off your game.”
Within 24 hours of learning their opponent, Warming had already seen plenty of video of the Hawks, and the first game film he made sure to show his team was of their 5-2 loss to Maryland three weeks ago.
The final score was skewed by two Terrapin goals in the final five minutes, but Warming had his team focus on the first half — and remembering what the Terrapins had done to the Nittany Lions a few weeks earlier.
“I think most of our guys, their mouths were open,” Warming said. “They were the better team that first 25 minutes. … It was a good game for our guys to see because they know how good Maryland is and they saw Maryland wasn’t linking together three passes.”
But Warming also knows his group has the makings of something that can go a long distance, if they can find the magic again they had for most of the season.
“It’s much more difficult to get in (to the NCAA Tournament) with your body of work,” Warming said, “than to have one hot weekend.”