Second-year Penn State coach Amanda Lehotak knows she has a talented team.
The challenge this season is convincing her players. They’ve certainly gone through some things that would cause doubt.
The Nittany Lions are 47-100 over the past three seasons. Included in that mark is a 19-50 record in conference play.
“What I don’t like about the team right now is that we can be great and they don’t believe that,” Lehotak said at the annual spring sports media day earlier this week. “I’ve never had a team that I quite have to prove everything to. I have to prove the fact that we can be good and we are better than certain teams.”
While her team may have a crisis of confidence, Lehotak isn’t taking it easy on them. She’s scheduled a tough slate of games to start the season. Seven of the Nittany Lions’ non-conference foes made the NCAA Tournament last season.
“It’s a really tough schedule,” Lehotak said. “I like it because I’m a little old school in the fact that I want to play the best of the best. Some coaches will say you’ve got to learn how to win. You don’t practice more and go to it. You just go to it. That’s what we need to do.
“I think my kids can mentally handle it,” she added of her squad, which will face four NCAA qualifiers in Big Ten play. “I respect my athletes because I don’t want to hide them from anything. … It may not be good for the record, but it is going to create character and when we need to learn how to win and when we need to win in conference we’re going to be able to do that because we’ve played the best of the best.”
The season got off to a diverse start last weekend at Florida Atlantic’s Kickoff Tournament. Penn State opened with consecutive wins over Arkansas (6-4), LIU Brooklyn (9-1) and Georgia Tech (3-2). Then it soured as the Nittany Lions had just two total hits in losses against Kansas (8-0) and Florida Atlantic (7-1).
Even with those final two results, players say that the tournament went a long way toward creating some of that attitude that Lehotak craves. Penn State was 0-5 in the same event last season.
“I think this first weekend contributed a lot into our believing more in ourselves,” sophomore first baseman Kristina Brackpool said. “Our three wins were very team oriented. I think the more we practice and play together the more we’re going to believe in it.”
“Coming off a couple seasons with harsh losing records, you have to take a step back sometimes and think, ‘We’re in this, we’re just as good as everyone else and we’ve worked just as hard,’” added junior pitcher Christy Von Pusch. “It’s believing in your teammates and believing you can get the job done.”
Lehotak has used several different combinations early, but there have been some consistent personnel configurations, especially in the infield. Many of those are new faces.
Brackpool has been at first base, freshman Mollie Sorenson at second, junior Reina Furuya at shortstop, freshman Gianna Arrizurieta at third and freshman Mia Monopoli at catcher. Brackpool already has equaled her first season’s totals with two home runs last weekend. Furuya started in every game last season and in the five so far this season.
Senior Alicia Walker and junior Macy Jones have been in the outfield. Junior Lexi Knief, a second team all Big Ten pick and the team’s leading returning hitter (.372 last season) went 2 for 4 in the opener against Arkansas, but did not play in the final four games. Junior Erin Pond started in Knief’s usual spot in center field. Alyssa VanDerveer has started four times at designated hitter.
Pitching has to be a big concern for Lehotak. Last season, the Nittany Lions had a team ERA of 5.39.
Sophomore Marlaina Laubach, who was the ace at 9-18 with a 3.64 ERA, did not pitch last weekend. Senior Marissa Diescher went 2-1 in the season-opening tournament. Von Pusch, Jones and freshman Jessica Cummings also pitched in that event.
“What I like is we’re a team this year,” Lehotak said. “They really play for one another. They have each others’ backs. They know their roles best than they have in the past. They’re starting to understand who they are and what they can do for the team versus who they are and who they want to be which is a big difference.”
The Nittany Lions face another challenge starting Friday at the Aggie Classic at Texas A&M. The host Aggies (3-2) are one of those NCAA tournament teams from a year ago.
“Belief is going to be their biggest challenge,” Lehotak said. “When we get punched, if we can maintain our grit and have unyielding courage no matter what is thrown against us, I think we will be very successful.”