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Penn State field hockey prepares for NCAA Tournament 1st-round date with unfamiliar opponent Syracuse

Penn State Field Hockey vs. Bucknell

Penn State field hockey players congratulate each other after scoring a goal during the Nittany Lions' match against Bucknell University on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, at the Penn State Women's Field Hockey Complex. Penn State beat Bucknell 4-1.

For the seventh time in the past decade, coach Char Morett-Curtiss and Penn State are NCAA Tournament bound.

The Nittany Lions will battle Syracuse in the first round of play, Friday at noon in College Park, Maryland.

The winner of the matchup will move onto the second round on Sunday and face the winner of Maryland and Virginia.

The No. 4 Nittany Lions are entering the tournament 14-5, while No. 10 Syracuse is 13-5.

Both squads are coming off of semifinal matchup losses in their respective conference tournaments.

The blue and white fell to Rutgers during the Big Ten Tournament, while the Orange fell to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. Both teams ended their conference championship bids on Friday.

Penn State has met Syracuse just nine times in its history, and it leads the series with five wins and four losses.

During the most recent encounter in 2014, Syracuse came out on top by a score of 3-1, defeating Morett-Curtiss and company in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Morett-Curtiss has brought the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Tournament 29 times in her 35 years with the program. She said she felt excited leading this 2021 squad into the tournament.

“We’re excited to be a part of it,” Morett-Curtiss said. “We’re excited with our seeding, but we recognize how strong this field is. One of 16 can win the whole shebang. That's what I think gives you the motivation and excitement about being prepared to practice and be ready for when that first game comes.”

When looking at the statistics of both teams entering the tournament, an offensive pressure will be clear on the field in Friday’s encounter.

The Nittany Lions have outscored their opponents 49-28 so far in this season, while the Orange have outnumbered their opposition 61-21.

Many offensive advantages have come from forcing scoring opportunities, including penalty corners for both Penn State and Syracuse.

The blue and white has tallied 148 penalty corners to this point in the season, while Syracuse has 136.

In its last win of the season against Maryland, Penn State secured the lead with a goal from senior defender Anna Simon off one of those penalty corners.

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Simon has racked up 14 goals for her team this year and is a key playmaker in scoring opportunities for the blue and white.

In order to come out on top in Friday’s tournament battle, Morrett-Curtiss emphasized connecting the ball with the sticks of the front line in the offensive half of the field from players like Simon.

On the opposite side of the field, leading scoring for the Orange, graduate student forward Quirine Comans has executed goals for her team by shooting on penalty-corner plays as well.

In Syracuse’s recent victory over Duke, the team forced several corner opportunities to take the offensive advantage and defeat the Blue Devils 5-1.

The close statistics between these two squads carry to the backfield as well.

Junior goalkeeper Brie Barraco has been solid, posting a 0.748 save percentage in the cage for the Nittany Lions, while freshman goalkeeper Brooke Borzymowski has been decent in her own right, holding a 0.726 save percentage on the season for the Orange.

Entering the Big Ten Tournament, Morrett-Curtiss expressed how the biggest improvement thus far for Penn State has been when making defensive plays.

Defensive players for the blue and white, like junior midfielder Elena Vos, who received an All-Big Ten second team nod this season, have been key in this turnaround.

“Vos has really improved her game and her communication skills,” Morett-Curtiss said. “She’s someone that you totally recognize from a defensive standpoint.”

Sophomore back Eefke van den Nieuwenhof has been a pillar in the backfield for the Orange this season, receiving honors including a place on the ACC All-Tournament team.

Morett-Curtiss acknowledged the defensive pressure held by Syracuse this season, stating the improvement of, not only the Orange’s structure, but their ball-possession game in the backfield, is something the Nittany Lions must be prepared for.

Both sides must come out strong during defensive plays in Friday’s matchup to eliminate opportunities in the scoring circle.

“They have a lot of experienced defensive players, and they really pass the ball around the backfield,” Morett-Curtiss said. “Our offense has to be keen with pressuring the ball and running the right lines. Otherwise, they can really put together some passes and get down to the offensive end quickly.”

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