Having outscored its opponents 41-13 on its way to an 8-2 record and a No. 6 ranking in the country, the Penn State field hockey team has certainly enjoyed some great early season success.
Now, Big Ten play is on the horizon, where the stakes are high, the game’s are intense, and emotions run rampant amongst the players.
“There’s a different vibe in practice this week,” junior defensive back Abby Fuhrman said. “We’re excited for Big Ten play. It’s where we get all our momentum from.”
This weekend, the Nittany Lions will take on two top-25 teams — No. 24 Indiana comes to town on Friday, while No. 17 Michigan visits Sunday.
Last season, the Lions finished with a 4-2 record in conference play, good for a three-way tie for second place. But despite not finishing on top, the Lions ran through the subsequent Big Ten tournament in grand fashion, defeating the No. 1-seeded Wolverines in the final, 3-2, for the team’s first Big Ten tournament championship since 1998.
This year’s team returns the eight top scorers from that championship team, but when asked if she felt that the Lions might have a target on their back, head coach Charlene Morett wasn’t so sure.
“The tournament plays a lot differently than regular conference play,” Morett said. “Tournament time is just another phase of our season. But the start of Big Ten play is also an exciting time for us regardless.”
Morett has continued to stress passing and possession as key elements for the Lions’ gameplan, which relies on heavy scoring from both penalty corners and strikes from the field.
“I think we’re at the 50-50 mark with that [possession],” Morett said. “We’ve had some games this year where we’ve been below the 50 percent possession rate. We’re just getting back into the positive, but there still needs to be that smart play. But our team has always given that extra effort, and they work hard.”
No. 24 Indiana represents a tough opening test for the Lions. The Hoosiers are battle tested, having just played three straight contests that went into overtime, two of which were victories.
“They’re a very structured team,” Morett said. “They do a good job of zoning on the field. That’s why we really need to make sure we play a good possession game.”
“We need to keep our composure,” junior forward Ashtin Klinger added. “We’ve been playing great field hockey so far this season, and we can’t let our nerves get the best of us.”
And as if Indiana weren’t challenging enough, the Wolverines follow up just two days later, looking to avenge their championship game defeat from a year ago.
But the Lions remain confident in their ability to win games.
“Our victories have definitely [given] us momentum as a team,” Klinger said. “Going back to the beginning of the season, you have lots of doubts on how the team is going to come together, but I think we’ve really proved ourselves thus far and this momentum is going to carry us through the Big Ten and on.”
Friday’s game against Indiana will also be the first Penn State field hockey game on the Big Ten Network this season, with games against Ohio State and Northwestern to follow later on.