Aug. 22, 2006
Undefeated in its last 25 games, eight-time Big Ten Champion Penn State and head coach Paula Wilkins are preparing to defend their title, their home field and their tradition as the 2006 season approaches. The Nittany Lions went an unbelievable 23-0-2 in 2005, finishing the year with their third College Cup appearance and eighth consecutive Big Ten crown. Penn State was ranked a program-best No. 2 in the NSCAA's final poll after earning the No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history and staying there for three weeks.
One of the three All-Americans from that team returns to Happy Valley this year in the form of captain Ali Krieger. A senior midfielder and the heart and soul of the Nittany Lion team according to 2005 National Coach of the Year Wilkins, Krieger missed the 2005 NCAA Tournament with an injury, but returns fully recovered to lead Penn State's team this season.
Gone is perennial scoring power and two-time M.A.C. Hermann Trophy runner-up Tiffany Weimer. Graduation also pilfered two-time All-America goalkeeper Erin McLeod, Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year Lindsay Bach and 2004 All-American Natalie Jacobs from the defense, one of the top units in the country the past two years. According to Wilkins, her team is looking at these as challenges, but not problems.
"Obviously we have some holes to fill from last year and what we've found in the past is that we've always had players step up in those roles. I think one of the biggest obstacles we have is obviously replacing Tiffany Weimer's 32 goals. I think this year, however, we have a talented group that can create and score goals in different ways rather then relying on Tiffany," said Wilkins before preseason camp began.
"I think it's significant when you lose a player like that, but in the past we've lost the Christie Welsh's of the world and the Rachel Hoffman's and other players have stepped up so that's the challenge for our team. I think in the back, obviously we lost the heart and soul of our defense, but I think they taught the other players very well and the experience and the tradition that they've passed on to these players will be again sort of carried on."
In addition to a conference title defense and an ever-present eye on the program's first national championship, Penn State will contest for the Big Ten Tournament championship on its home field again this season for the first time since 1998. While the Nittany Lions have dominated the regular season by winning eight straight Big Ten titles, the program can boast only three tournament titles to pair with them.
"We're very excited. It feels like it's been forever since we've had the tournament here," said Wilkins. "Obviously our players enjoy playing in front of their home crowd at Jeffrey Field, I know we'll do a great job of hosting all of the teams, and I think it's a great challenge for our players to hopefully bring the Big Ten Tournament championship back to Penn State- especially in front of the home crowd."
An all-time home record of 114-8-3, including an overall mark of 51-1 under Wilkins, gives the Lions great confidence in the power of their crowd as the 12th man in their attack.
According to Wilkins, "We have some of the best fans around. With the still relatively-new stadium seating at Jeffrey Field, it's a great place to come watch a game and our crowds have grown exponentially over the past few seasons as that secret begins to get out. It will be a great venue for this year's Big Ten Tournament."
In addition to the conference tournament action, the Penn State Invitational boasts a national-caliber line-up in NCAA runner-up UCLA, SEC power Tennessee and ACC upstart Maryland. "I think having that tournament at the beginning of our schedule will really jump-start this team into understanding what they will need to bring to the field this year to achieve the goals that they have," said Wilkins.
The Penn State Invitational returns to the Lions' schedule for the second straight season and will do wonders to prepare the 2006 Lions for the rigors of national competition. The 2005 national runner-up UCLA Bruins kick-off the Lions' season on Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m. following the Maryland vs. Tennessee game that begins tournament action. Penn State faces SEC power Tennessee on Sunday, Aug. 27 at 2:30 p.m. to conclude the tournament and the intense schedule just keeps the action coming for the Lions from there until the final horn.
A road trek to Texas to face the Longhorns and then the Texas A&M Aggies will take the Lions into hostile enemy territory early. West Virginia and Bucknell welcome the Lions home before they travel to the Northeast to play Harvard and Northeastern. The Big Ten slate could be the toughest ever and leads Nittany Lion fans right into the Big Ten Tournament at Jeffrey Field from Nov. 3-6.
"Obviously we always try to build a strong schedule because to be the best you have to play the best," said Wilkins. "I think the Big Ten is going to have one of its strongest seasons ever. It'll be a hard-fought year from start to finish for us, especially with all of the talent coming into the Big Ten, but one I think we will be more then up to the challenge of taking on."