Penn State defender Eli Dennis was brought up in a family that loved the Nittany Lions, plain and simple.
Growing up in Easton, Md., one would think that the Dennis family would be fans of more local schools like Georgetown or Maryland.
However, the redshirt sophomore’s family lent itself to rooting for Penn State due to a long lineage of Lions in the family history.
“My whole extended family went to Penn State…I think [my family] counted one day and there was 19 of us total that are or were Penn Staters,” Dennis said.
Perhaps the most important relatives who are Penn State alumni are Eli’s parents, Laura and Greg Dennis.
Not only did both Laura and Greg graduate together in 1983, but they also were four-year starters on the men’s and women’s soccer teams, respectively, during their time in Happy Valley.
Greg, a captain in 1983, played central defender and was a vocal leader of the Lions under former coach Walter Bahr.
Laura was also a four-year starter in her time on the women’s soccer team.
However, the women’s team wasn’t a varsity squad during the early 1980s despite the passing of Title IX.
“The women’s team in my time was ‘Club with Varsity Status’ which meant that we played a schedule of varsity teams but were not given varsity perks,” Laura said.
Considering both of their backgrounds, Penn State soccer was a mainstay in the Dennis household.
“We weren’t that big of a football family, so when we did talk about Penn State it was mostly soccer oriented…And Happy Valley has always been looked at well,” Eli said.
Despite all of the family history and positivity around the university, Eli never considered Penn State for soccer when he was being recruited in his 2009 senior campaign.
At the time, Penn State soccer was in a brief period of instability during a coaching change after the program’s all-time winningest coach, Barry Gorman, resigned to pursue other professional opportunities.
Because of this, Dennis decided to play soccer in the middle of Washington, D.C. at American University.
“It certainly helped because it was only an hour or so away, and it was nice to go watch him play,” Eli’s mother said.
In his first year as an Eagle, Dennis started in 14 of 18 games played and tallied five points (one goal, three assists).
After helping his team to the Patriot League conference finals, Dennis was named a team captain in the offseason as a sophomore.
Despite a prosperous first year on the pitch, Dennis decided to transfer from American to Penn State.
So, why would he leave such a successful situation?
When Eli was recruited by American, he was pitched premier academics and dedicated fans because soccer was one of few sports at the university.
However, Laura said American is known for its liberal arts pedigree and Eli wanted to focus on the sciences. Also, she said there wasn’t any athletic fan base and athletes were on the outs at American so he felt “disconnected.”
Both Greg and Laura said that with Eli going to Penn State, they were able to reconnect with past teammates and revisit their days as Lions.
“Soccer has always been a ‘touchstone’,” Laura said. “People who play soccer pay attention to what’s happening with the sport and watch the players, particularly ones that they feel connected to. Lots of people feel connected to Eli because of Greg and I.”
After making the switch, Dennis redshirted the 2011 season and started this season in the regular substitution rotation.
However, Dennis started picking up more consecutive starts and working his way into the starting XI with the Lions’ back line dealing with injuries.
To Dennis’ misfortune, he too caught the injury bug and suffered a broken leg against Bucknell on Oct. 17.
Coach Bob Warming said that Dennis stepped in well on the back well and that it’s unfortunate about the severity of the injury.
If it weren’t for his injury, Eli would still be competing on the same field that was cherished by his parents for so long.
“If the best players ‘leave it all on the field’ — the emotions, the energy, and the spirit — the sweat and blood that we have all left on that field makes Jeffrey Field a monument to everyone who has played and coached there,” Greg said.
With Eli now well-entrenched in the soccer program, his parents are not only looking back on their times on the pitch in the 1980s, but also evaluating how far the soccer program has come and what they hope it’s able to maintain.
“I hope there is still room for all the old fashioned team demands like loyalty, hard work, focus, determination, honesty and teamwork,” Greg said. “All those things are more important than any technical factors to the game and to the players as young men.”