The No. 11 Penn State women’s soccer will face a number of new challenges as it ventures deeper into their Big Ten schedule.
From new playing styles, to injury, to travel, the Nittany Lions have several factors to overcome as they journey to the Midwest over the weekend.
The Lions (6-2-0) will first take on Northwestern (4-3-2) on Friday at 8 p.m., followed by Illinois (4-3-1) on Sunday at 2 p.m.
The Lions kicked off their conference play with a 2-1 victory over No. 14 Wisconsin, defeating the Badgers for the first time in three seasons. Though Penn State was able to counter Wisconsin’s physical play, Northwestern and Illinois present new obstacles within the Big Ten.
Against Northwestern, the Lions will be playing on a turf surface that they will have to adjust to. They plan to focus on the ball control and quickness that has allowed them to succeed so far this season.
“Northwestern the game is on turf and it’s usually windy on their field, so we have to keep the ball on the ground and play to our strengths,” junior Maya Hayes said. “I think it’ll just be quicker at the end of the day, we’ve all won on turf, we’ve all lost on turf.”
Forwards Hayes and senior Christine Nairn will be expected to set the tone for the Lions’ offensive attack. They should be able to exploit a weaker Northwestern defense that has allowed more goals than Wildcats’ offense has scored this season (14-13).
“We just want to keep our momentum moving forward,” senior Maddy Evans said. “We saw some good things against Wisconsin and we want to maximize on them. We really want to just keep our focus now that the Big Ten has started.”
Illinois is expected to be a greater challenge for the Lions. The Fighting Illini are known conference-wide for their athleticism, and were able to defeat Penn State in last year’s Big Ten Championship game, 2-1.
“They like to possess more and we’ve competed with them in the past in the sense that they beat us in the Big Ten Championship last year,” Hayes said. “I think we’re going into this match with a little chip on our shoulder.”
Illinois also presents Penn State with the problem of dealing with junior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo. DiBernardo just returned to the team after competing for the U-20 World Cup team in Japan alongside Penn State players Hayes and junior Taylor Schram.
“Illinois has arguably the best midfielder in the country in Vanessa DiBernardo,” coach Erica Walsh said. “A special player can change a game, and just how opponents have to find a way to deal with Christine Nairn. Right now we have to figure out how to keep DiBernardo in check. She can single-handedly win this conference if teams allow her to.”
After competing with DiBernardo only weeks ago, Hayes is excited to go head-to-head with her former teammate.
“I think our midfield will be able to control things but obviously Vanessa is a great player,” Hayes said. “She was just with us, so it’ll be a fun match to watch and a fun match to play in.”
Schram will not compete after experiencing concussion symptoms following a hit she took in practice last week. Schram has a history of concussions and will not play as a precaution, but said she could be back in the lineup as soon as next week at Ohio State. She has not played since returning from the national team.
Even with Schram’s and other injuries to the lineup, Walsh has been impressed with how her team has been able to prepare physically for away matches, the team is 2-2 in road games this season.
“These guys have done a great job of preparing their bodies so all travel challenges should be neutralized,” Walsh said. “These guys travel more than the average businessman, half our team has traveled internationally on a regular basis. That’s just part of what we do.”