That last step can be the hardest one to take — and to figure out how to take it.
The No. 7 Penn State women’s lacrosse team had been on an upward trajectory over the last few years, and last spring made the huge leap to reach the national semifinals.
With that kind of progress, expectations are raised, and the effort from opponents also gets raised.
“That’s the next transition we need to make,” coach Missy Doherty said last week. “Play like a top team every chance we get.”
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Doherty is now expecting a lot more from her team, especially with eight returning starters. The quest to make that next step starts at noon Saturday when the season opens against Albany at Holuba Hall.
The run to the national semifinals, which ended with a 12-11 loss to eventual champion North Carolina, shaped the team in many ways. The Nittany Lions who went through the experience are trying to use it for the future.
“Yeah we have the experience getting to the final four,” senior midfielder Abby Smucker said. “But just making it known to the underclassmen that there’s no pressure once you get there. It’s just like any other game. You approach it the same way.”
There is plenty of experience to get them back, but most of it is in the back of their formation.
Anchoring the back is senior goaltender Cat Rainone, who steps into the starting role after the graduation of Emi Smith.
“Returning a big defensive group, for the most part, has really helped us, experience-wise, stay on top of things,” Doherty said. “Our attack is a little bit younger.”
The biggest losses came from the midfield in Madison Cyr, who netted 59 goals last season, and Jenna Mosketti and her 33 goals.
But they do bring back Big Ten Freshman of the Year Madison Carter and her 48 goals, along with Katie O’Donnell (46 goals) and Steph Lazo (34 goals, 37 assists).
Doherty sees a shift in the expected scoring production after the loss of the two key midfielders.
“Over the course of the last two years a lot of our offense has transitioned into the low attack players,” Doherty said. “A lot of the pressure in previous years has come from the midfield to come down and score a lot of our goals. Now we have some really talented low attackers that have been working well together.”
Some of the toughest competition the team will face will be in the Big Ten, having to climb over Northwestern and Maryland just to win the conference. Maryland lost to the Tar Heels in last year’s title game, has won three national titles since 2010 and a dozen overall. The Wildcats have captured seven crowns since 2005.
“We love those hurdles,” Doherty said. “… Now that we’ve gotten the team to where it is, those games are fun. We’re ready to make big plays.”
It’s part of the process in taking that last, big step.
“When we got to the final four, I told the players going into that weekend we got there for a reason,” Doherty said. “It’s because we were ready. We didn’t get there before because maybe we weren’t quite as ready for it.”