Nittany Lions Use Hot-Shooting to Roll Past Rutgers

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10719879.jpegBy Matt Allibone, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.- After knocking on the Big Ten door the past six games, the Penn State men's basketball team emphatically kicked it down Saturday afternoon against Rutgers.

Looking for their first conference victory, the Nittany Lions were sharp in every aspect, beating the Scarlet Knights 79-51 for their largest margin of victory in a home Big Ten game since 1998 to get in the win column in the Big Ten.

From shooting percentage to rebounding to turnover margin, Penn State outclassed Rutgers in nearly every statistical category. More importantly though, the Lions kept their energy up for the entire 40 minutes in a contest in which they led for the final 29:41.

"I think that we played together, we played smart, we played physical, we played Penn State basketball for 40 minutes which we hadn't done all year until today," senior guard D.J. Newbill said. "It's growth, a lot of times we get leads and we let teams come back. Now we have to learn how to finish them, keep the pedal to the metal and keep playing hard."

After falling behind 6-0 three minutes in, Penn State started to heat up, scoring 12 points in a span of 2:47 off of four 3-pointers. It was a sign of things to come for the Nittany Lions.

For the rest of the game, the Lions' shooting stroke simply never wore off, as they hit 51 percent of shots from the field and a remarkable 50 percent from behind the arc. Overall, it was the team's third highest shooting performance of the year from the field and second highest from three.

Making it more impressive was the fact that nine players tallied points with six of them (Newbill, Payton Banks, Shep Garner, Donovon Jack, Brandon Taylor and Geno Thorpe) hitting at least one 3-pointer.  The Lions finished the afternoon with three players, Newbill (23), Taylor (16) and Garner (13), scoring in double figures.

"A lot of guys have been putting in extra work, working on their shot, getting extra reps individually and as a team," Newbill, said. "I think today we came out really confident, we were getting some good looks and we were taking them with confidence, just sticking it."

The Lions attempted 20 3-pointers (10-20) on the afternoon, their ninth game of the season taking at least 20 triples. Although they entered the game shooting 31 percent from that distance, head coach Patrick Chambers encouraged his players to keep shooting.

Having watched his team shoot 54 percent from the field on the road against the Big Ten's top team in Wisconsin, Chambers knew his players had it in them. All that they needed was to remain confident.

"Look, your offense always looks good when the ball is going in the basket," Chambers said. "It just went in a little more often today then the past few games. I hear the criticism, 'you can't take those deep threes, why you shooting so many threes.' It's the only way we're going to be successful. If I'm going to pull these kids back, I don't think it's fair to them and they're not going to play with the upmost confidence."

At the same time, the way the Lions shot the ball wasn't the only notable thing about their performance. Defensively, they were on point all afternoon, holding Rutgers to 51 points and just 23 after halftime, while forcing 16 turnovers that led to 21 of their points.

After coming up just short the previous five games (losing each of them by fewer than 10 points), Penn State made it clear it wasn't going to let this one slip away. Going into the break up 41-28, the Lions started the second half on fire, going on an 11-2 run in just 1:52 that seemed to take the life out of the Scarlet Knights.

"I wanted to win the second half," Chambers said. "I didn't tell them it like that, it was more, 'win the next possession,' and we put enough possessions together to win."

It's been a tough first month of conference play for Penn State, with a lot of close loses and near misses. Though Chambers and his squad are certainly going to enjoy this victory, they know there is still plenty of work to be done.

With 11 conference games remaining, including a matchup against Minnesota this Wednesday at home, the Lions will look to continue to establish momentum as each game becomes more critical.

"For us mentally, it just shows us, we can do this, we can be successful," Chambers said. "And we've got to continue to work on the little things, we're starting to shoot the ball a lot better.  It was about stops and rebounding, and I think we got back to our foundation."

Men's Hockey Blog - PSU vs. NMU (1/24)

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Welcome to's live coverage of Penn State men's hockey. Today, the Nittany Lions will take on Northern Michigan. The game is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m.

Live Blog Men's Hockey Blog - Penn State vs. Northern Michigan (1/24)

2014-'15 Men's Hoops Blog - Penn State vs. Rutgers

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Welcome to's live, interactive coverage of the 2014-'15 men's basketball season. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions welcome Rutgers to the Bryce Jordan Center.

Live Blog 2014-'15 Men's Hoops Blog - Penn State vs. Rutgers

Men's Hockey Blog - PSU vs. NMU (1/23)

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Welcome to's live coverage of Penn State men's hockey. Today, the Nittany Lions will take on Northern Michigan. The game is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

Live Blog Men's Hockey Blog - Penn State vs. Northern Michigan (1/23)

BLOG: Lady Lions Click to Get First Big Ten Win

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By Mike Esse, Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It was one of those smiles where it was waiting to come out for so long and when it finally did, it was hard to miss. The smiles drew from a sense of appreciation of the hard work Penn State's players and coaches had for each other after sealing a close 79-75 win over Indiana Thursday night.

The win marked Penn State's first since Dec. 14 and first win in the Big Ten conference season.

"I'm happy for the kids and I know they're excited, but the locker room wasn't over-joyed," head coach Coquese Washington said. "It was appreciative and satisfied, but there is an understanding that tomorrow we have to get back to work and we have to keep getting better."

Kaliyah's Night

Penn State certainly improved Thursday night against the Hoosiers with five players scoring in double figures. Sophomore Kaliyah Mitchell led the way with 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting from the field.

Mitchell's second straight double-digit night paced the Lady Lions throughout the game, providing balance with Sierra Moore and Candice Agee who had 15 and 13 respectively. With this balance, in its past two games Penn State has seen a considerable improvement on the offensive end.

"No accident here, no accident at all," Washington said of her team playing better as Mitchell gets more involved in scoring. I think Kaliyah's play is big. We need everybody to contribute in the ways that they can and when we do that, I think we can be successful."

Having five players in double-digit scoring marked the first time Penn State has clicked on all cylinders for 40-minutes this season, which according to Mitchell makes it much easier to succeed.

"I think that really helps to take the pressure off of each other," she said. "We know that we have players out there that we can count on. When we are all clicking you don't have to really look for one person, you have everyone on the court available. So, I think today's a game where we showed that. We had a lot of diversity [in the scoring column.] Everybody was being aggressive and I think that is a good thing for our team."

Return of Lindsey

Lindsey Spann returned to the lineup Thursday night after missing the entire Ohio State game. Washington played Spann in spurts in the first half, before having her play the majority of the second half, especially late. The redshirt freshman totaled 23 minutes in her first game back from injury

Washington said she wanted to monitor Spann's minutes coming into the game, but also make sure Spann matched the way the team was playing and was entered in the appropriate times.

In the first half, Spann took a little while to get going and get comfortable playing in full game speed, but in the second half she played more like her normal self and added even more to a very successful group of guard play.

"I think the second half she got the chance to figure out where her opportunities would come," Washington said. I think she got a few [baskets] in transition and she did a better job of seeing her opportunities in the zone. I think she got some good shots off in the zone, which was what helped her."

Between Spann and Sierra Moore, Penn State received 26 points from its guards, a majority of which came in transition in the second half.

Dominate the Paint

Led by Agee, Penn State controlled the glass all night against the Hoosiers 47 to 35 overall and 23 to 11 on the offensive glass. Those numbers turned into 42 Penn State points in the paint compared to Indiana's 14 and the Lady Lions' 19 second chance points.

Especially during the final minutes, Penn State was able to dictate possessions by dominating the inside.

"Most definitely inside presence gave them trouble with Candace [Agee] and Tori [Waldner]," Moore said. "They did a great job posting up today and getting the inside-out game going. That's when our offense is great; I think our inside presence really caused them some trouble."

Getting rebounds was the focus all week in practice, and it paid dividends in the win.

"We really focused in practice [on rebounding]," Peyton Whitted said. "We were working on going to the ball and going after it and jumping to it and not just letting the ball come to us. I thought that really helped us tonight. I thought we were jumping to it and getting there first before [Indiana] had a chance."

Penn State will have a chance to build a two-game winning streak Sunday as they host Northwestern at 2 p.m. at the Bryce Jordan Center.

By Astrid Diaz, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Most students pack their bags and hit the open road for a few hundred miles directly to Happy Valley knowing that their families and friends are far enough away that they won't bug them on the weekends but close enough for when they get homesick.

Other students, however, are hungry for opportunities that they may not find only a few hundred miles from home so, they choose to go beyond the borders of their comfort zones and travel thousands of miles to chase adventures and experiences.
sat down with three track and field student-athletes to talk about their time in the United States and at Penn State.

Freshman Jordan Makins wandered just over 10,000 miles away from his family and friends in Perth, Australia to join the Nittany Lions.

Freshman Obeng Marfo comes to State College from the neighbors up north in Ontario, Canada and senior Annjulie Vester flew across the sea all the way from Homburg, Germany.

GoPSU: What were the reactions of your friends and family when you told them you were going to the United States to be a student-athlete?

Makins: Well, a lot of people said 'You're really not going to do that, you're just talking about it'. It's a pretty big move to make and to get the whole thing set up from 10,000 miles away. There was definitely a little bit of awe - they told me it was all a big dream.

Vester: My friends were really excited and super supportive actually more than my family. My mom and my dad were saying, 'this is a big dream, you don't know how things [work in America]'. For me, it's 4,000 miles. You can't really grasp that. They've never been here. They've just seen New York on TV. I just pushed through and they all got really excited once it all started happening and once I got here and now they're super supportive.

Marfo: All my friends and family were really supportive. My school made a big deal about signing day and the letter of the intent. They had the news come in and everything.

GoPSU: What was the first thing you thought when you realized you were really coming to Penn State?

Makins: The first thing I though was 'I don't have nearly enough winter gear'. I thought it was going to snow the first month I was here - I was really nervous! I panicked a little and bought a lot of stuff.

Vester: I thought I was going to get fat but, luckily, I didn't. I usually cook at home [back in Germany] and you don't go out to eat a lot. I wasn't used to all this massive food and all the fat.

Marfo: Yeah, I thought I was going to get fat too. My brothers were teasing me about it saying, 'don't get fat. Don't eat this and that.'

GoPSU: At what moment did it finally hit you that you were really in America?

Makins: Two things for me. One is that it is incredibly green. Back home it's dry and [looks like a] dessert so it was an awesome experience to see all the forestry. The other thing was the first month we were eating out everyday and all the places had burgers and chips. The burgers with no vegetables...I struggled. I felt so unhealthy for a while.

Vester: When I was in Virginia and I was touring a campus in a car, I looked around and it looked like Hogwarts! It was just so beautiful.

Marfo: Well, for me, I've been to America many times but I remember one day I went to Wal-Mart with my family. It felt like a regular Wal-Mart, it wasn't any different than in Canada but I asked one of the ladies [that was working] for Christmas lights. She told me they didn't have any so I said, 'okay, thank you'. I said thank you and she responded with 'mhm'! So, that's when I thought, 'Yeah, only in America'. In Canada, everyone always says 'you're welcome' or 'no problem'. Never 'mhm'! I was so hurt that whole day.

What has been your favorite part of being on the team at Penn State?

Vester: The new people and I love that the team is so close. We have so many team meetings and they really want us to participate as a team. That's what I really liked. I feel comfortable going to practice because it's like a little family.

Makins: I'd say that was the most exciting moment for me [too]. The team and how welcoming they were. Looking into the roster was a big deal for me for which school I'd pick and Penn State's middle distance roster was something I wanted to fit into. It feels like home. also caught up with assistant coach Ryan Foster who came to Penn State from Tasmania, Australia a few years ago to join the program as a student-athlete and has remained in the State College area ever since.

GoPSU: What were some of the most shocking things you remember about first arriving to the United States and to Penn State?

Foster: There was a bit of culture shock coming from another country. The collegiate athletic scene is pretty foreign.  Americans like to call everybody coach. It's always 'coach' and when I got here I always said 'Oh, John,' so it was something I had to get used to and get out of that habit. People made fun of me for a while.

GoPSU: Do you ever consider those feelings when working with students like Jordan, Annjulie, and Obeng?

Foster: I definitely think about having been through it. There's a difference between being 100 miles from home like a lot of the freshman are versus being 10,000 miles from home. A lot of the different things these student athletes deal with, I have a pretty good perspective on. You cannot just call your parents whenever you want to. Being an international student-athlete is different because you don't have the same support network. I competed at Penn State for three years and my parents never saw me compete once in the States. Every time you compete, you're pretty much on your own.

GoPSU: So, what made it easier for you to deal with the circumstances?

Foster: Penn State does a really good job of making everybody feel included. I've been here so long, I don't even think about [being foreign] often [anymore].

Nittany Lions Looking to Build Momentum with Two-Straight at Home

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10712360.jpegUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After going toe-to-toe on the road at Michigan State, the Nittany Lion basketball team (12-7, 0-6 Big Ten) team will kickoff a two-game homestand against Rutgers (10-10, 2-5) on Saturday at noon (ESPNU) inside the Bryce Jordan Center.

Following an agonizing overtime setback to Purdue last Saturday, it would have been easy for the Nittany Lions to feel the lingering effects of a tough outcome on the road at Michigan State. But Penn State competed for 40 minutes and again put itself in a position win.

"I thought the last couple games, we have really competed hard and done some really good things," head coach Patrick Chambers said. "The ball hasn't really bounced our way, but I really like our level of competition and I really like our approach. We've got to take another step. For us to play that well at Michigan State after such a difficult loss shows something about our character and about our resolve and our perseverance."

The Nittany Lions have been in five-straight games that were one possession in the final four minutes. As Chambers has said, the ball hasn't bounced Penn State's way, but the Lions continue to be on the cusp of getting over the hump. And when they do, Chambers thinks the Lions will be a tough team to defend.

"We haven't played a 40-minute game yet, but we are getting close," Chambers said.

Offensively, senior guard D.J. Newbill has been tremendous in Big Ten play. In conference games alone, Newbill is averaging a Big Ten-leading 23.2 points per game. Newbill's ability to seemingly score, seemingly at will on dribble-drives and pull-up jumpers, has been fun to watch in conference play. What makes Newbilll's scoring so impressive is that he is shooting 47 percent from the field in Big Ten play and averaging 3.0 assists per game, all while the opponents are gameplanning to limit Newbill's output.

"With everybody, their gameplan is to stop D.J. Newbill," Chambers said. "It really hasn't worked all year. He's so efficient in his approach, his shot-making ability and his comfort zone. We need other guys to step up, no question about it. We need to continue to share the ball. We need to continue to put pressure on in the paint and get to the free throw line. I felt like we shot the ball well at Michigan State."

On the defensive end of the floor, the Nittany Lions have played well of late. Penn State held Michigan State to 66 points, 43 percent from the field and 31 percent from beyond the arc. The next step for Penn State is to become more consistent on the defensive glass. Purdue and Michigan State combined for 30 offensive rebounds during the last two games. Penn State has gotten the stops it needs, but needs to find a way to keep opponents off of the offensive glass.

"I like where our defense is going," said Chambers. "We've got to be able to rebound the ball much better on the defensive glass. I think that is hurting us a little bit right now. Again, we've got to get ourselves out of rotations and defending the ball so there are no blow-bys."

Penn State and Rutgers will be seeing one another for the second time in three weeks on Saturday. An ice-cold shooting night hindered the Nittany Lions in a 50-46 setback in Piscataway on Jan. 3. Rutgers made just four field goals in the second half, but the Lions were unable to overcome an 11-point halftime deficit.

Since the Nittany Lions played the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers has gone 1-4 in Big Ten play, which includes a 67-62 victory over No. 4 Wisconsin in the RAC. The Knights are on a three-game skid, but all three losses were decided by nine points or fewer.

Guard Myles Mack continues to lead Rutgers in scoring at 14.7 points per game. Forward Kadeem Jack, who scored 12 points against the Nittany Lions in the first meeting, is averaging 12.8 tallies on the season. Junior Etou is the team's top rebounder at 6.8 per game. As a team, Rutgers is ranked 14th in scoring offense at 59.7 points per game. The Knights are ranked sixth in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 62.3 points per game.

Rutgers last played in the Bryce Jordan Center on March 14, 2006 in a first round game of the NIT. This will be only the third meeting between the two border rivals since the BJC opened in 1996.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Additions to Coaching Roster 'Vault' Program to New Heights

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10711636.jpegBy Gabrielle Richards, GoPSUsports Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - At the end of each season, collegiate programs graduate seniors and look for recruits to fill open spots on the roster. It is almost second nature for coaches and teammates to have to adjust to new faces, techniques and strengths as a new season rolls around. Sometimes, these adjustments are not only made with new teammates, but with coaches as well. 

At the start of the 2014-'15 season, two new faces, techniques and strengths found their way to Happy Valley, where they would contribute to Penn State's women's gymnastics program. Kera Molinaro and Jeff Richards have begun their Penn State careers this season, bringing experience, charisma and unique approaches to the team.

"They have been great additions to our program already," head coach Jeff Thompson said. "Every day they surprise me and I am thankful to be able to work with them."

The Richards File
There isn't a division that Jeff Richards hasn't coached in. Over the past 25 years, Richards has been either an assistant or head coach at every level of collegiate gymnastics. From Iowa to George Washington and now Penn State, Richards brings unrivaled experience to the Nittany Lion program.

"It has been a really smooth transition," coach Jeff Thompson said. "Jeff [Richards] is a really likeable guy. It is nice because we have developed this kind of 'partner coaching' style, which is really helpful because we have such a small group this year."

Richards began his coaching portfolio at Utah State as a student-assistant from 1988-'90. While assisting the Aggies, Richards helped the program to the NCAA Regionals, along with an NCAA Championship all-around competitor. From Utah State, he made his way to University of Wisconsin-Stout and Winona University, where he served as head coach of the programs, respectively. Richards' transition to Big Ten gymnastics came in 2005 when he began his tenure as assistant coach at Iowa. While he was only apart of the Hawkeyes' program from 2005-'08, the impact he made was enough to earn him the 2008 North Central Region Assistant Co-Coach of the Year title.

"When you are coaching floor routines, it helps to have a coach spotting you who you feel comfortable with," Jeff Thompson said. "Jeff [Richards]'s build, as crazy as that sounds, allows for the girls to be more comfortable doing the extra turn or committing to a rotation. He has a lot of experience and is a big, strong guy, so he can step right in. They know that he is going to catch them. There is a trust level there that you can see already."

When Richards' tenure came to an end at Iowa, he made his way back to his stomping grounds at Utah State, where he coached until 2013. In his time at the helm of the Aggies' program, he sent five qualifiers to the NCAA Regionals and nine of his pupils earned All-Western Athletics Conference honors on 13 occasions. He has mastered the art of developing well-rounded student athletes, as 22 of his team members earned Academic All-WAC.

Richards' contributions to the team can be seen already, as last weekend's floor performance proves. In the match against Nebraska, the Nittany Lions had five floor routines open with an "E" level tumbling pass, compared to the Cornhuskers' one. Because the team has developed a comfort level with him, coupled with their already great relationship with head coach Jeff Thompson, they are able to maneuver through these hard routines early.

"I think that is something that will pay dividends for us later," Jeff Thompson said.

The Molinaro File
If you are wondering why the name Molinaro sounds familiar, it is because that name is familiar to the Penn State community. Frank Molinaro, Kera's husband, was a four-time All-American wrestler and National Champion (2012) for the Nittany Lions during the 2007-'12 seasons. When Frank decided to come back to his Happy Valley roots and help coach his alma mater, it was only fitting for Kera to tag along.

"Back in October I said to myself, 'Wow, I am so glad she is apart of our program,'" coach Rachelle Thompson said. "She is a volunteer assistant coach, which says a lot about her as a person. She does this because she loves it; you can see it. When you look at coaching as not a 'job' but a passion, you really see the impact you can have as a mentor by helping these young women improve day in and day out. I have already seen the impact she has made on this team."

Prior to making the move to Penn State as a volunteer assistant coach, Molinaro was an assistant women's gymnastics coach at Rutgers, where she helped the program secure its first NCAA Tournament birth since 2007. Kera's strength is taking floor routines to the next level, as she did for Rutgers during the 2013 and 2014 seasons when the Knights set school records.

"She really made an impact there," Rachelle Thompson said. "Kera has a great little spirit about her. Our coaching techniques compliment each other really well. She has a very laid back, yet aggressive coaching style that the girls really seem to be responding to."

Before assisting at Rutgers, Molinaro volunteered at her alma mater, Oregon State. Molinaro took over the Beaver's strength and conditioning program and helped shape their beam routines. During her time on the coaching staff, Oregon State finished eighth in 2010 and 2011, the program's first top-ten finish in 13 years.

Gymnastics is in her blood, as Molinaro began her collegiate gymnastics career as a walk-on for the Beavers; it only took her a year to earn scholarship standing. She not only made touches in every event, but she was a three-time Pac-10 All-Academic selection and earned NACGC Scholastic All-American honors.

"Being able to have someone who is qualified to be a full-time, Division I coach, volunteer their time with you has been an amazing experience," Jeff Thompson said.

Up Next
The Nittany Lions welcome the Maryland Terrapins to Rec Hall this weekend in the first and only double dual of the 2014-'15 season. Penn State's men's gymnastics team will host Michigan.  The double dual is Saturday at 4 p.m. 

Nittany Lions Send Off Fourteen Against Navy

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10456494.jpegBy Meghan Miceli, Student Staff Writer
This weekend's swimming and diving matchup against the United States Naval Academy is more than just the final dual meet of the 2014-'15 season-- it is the last time 14 Nittany Lions will compete in McCoy Natatorium.  

This is the second group to graduate under head coach Tim Murphy after he took over as head coach in 2013.

"This group has a willingness and desire and with how much they have invested in this team for them to continue to do it is just a good mark of their character, their discipline, and overall their affection for what they're doing," Murphy explained. "Also where they're doing it and most of all, whom they're doing it with, that's what stands out."

Senior Day is historically the most emotional meet.  Each senior passes through a tunnel of created by their teammates where they meet the coaching staff at the end.  Next, they are then handed a letterman's blanket and flowers and are recognized for their dedication and hard work invested throughout their collegiate career.

For senior Katelyn Miller, her four years as a member of the team have flown by.

"It's crazy. As a freshman, I remember looking at the seniors and wondering if I was going to make it that far," Miller said with a laugh.  "It's surreal that it's finally here.  Walking down the pool deck with the whole team on either side of me is when I think it's going to hit me."

Miller is one of the five women graduating from the team, and one of the four seniors who competed and scored at the 2014 NCAA Championships for the Nittany Lions.  

Another senior member and scorer from the 2014 NCAA team is Megan Siverling. When asked about what she would miss most about competing for the Nittany Lions, Siverling had a great answer.

"I'm going to miss the fact that something that seems to trivial, like athletic performance, represents something so much bigger than ourselves," Silverling said. "Going a certain time isn't personal, I'm representing Penn State and it makes you better.  We're representing such an awesome institution that so many people love and follow so passionately. "

On the men's team, the Nittany Lions will lose nine, including captain Larry Virgillio.

"If you would have told me four and a half years ago if I would even think that I would be swimming for Penn State, I would have called you crazy," Virgilio laughed. "To be a captain at the end of four years, along with Nate (Savoy), it means more than words can describe."

But not all members of the 2015 class have spent the past four years as a Nittany Lion. Ryan MaGee spent his freshman year at Maryland before transferring to Penn State.

"Coming to Penn State has been awesome.  Being here has taught me the importance of working as one machine not just an individual," MaGee explained. "We really are a second family.  There's such a sense of unity here at Penn State, I'm definitely going to miss it."

Team unity is a key value among the men's and women's teams; it is something that has made the group stronger and contributed to their success.

"They each are making or have made are making a contribution to not only themselves but the program," Murphy said. "It's easy to stop doing this because this requires a lot of time, it's a long season but they've kept with it. That in it of itself I admire and respect."

A win this weekend would put the women at 11-1 on the season, and the men at 6-3.  But Coach Murphy is not worried about Senior Day affecting the Nittany Lion's performance in the pool.

"When they look up an see their parents, their family, their friends realizing that, this is the last time they're going to be swimming in a dual meet, in this pool - it'll hit them," Murphy said. "But we know what we have to do."

Saturday's meet begins at 11 a.m. with Senior Day beginning around 10:40 a.m. in McCoy Natatorium.

Nittany Lions Look to Improve on Last Season's Record Setting Success

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10711515.jpegBy Sean Donnelly, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Expectations are high for Penn State head coach Jeff Zinn and his men's tennis squad this year following a 2014 campaign where the Nittany Lions reached the second round of their sixth-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. They will begin the season ranked 26th, which is the highest preseason ranking in program history. Coach Zinn, now in his third season at Penn State, is aiming to improve on last season's success.

The Nittany Lions will begin the ITA Kick-Off Weekend on the road against No. 12 Kentucky (Friday at 1 p.m.). The winner will face No. 20 Vanderbilt or No. 23 South Florida.

"We haven't been invited for a number of years, so it's a nice honor to be invited to play in this tournament," said coach Zinn. "The other three teams we could potentially play against are all Top 25 teams. We are right in that mix. It's going to be a nice start to the season."

The Nittany Lions finished their record-setting 2014 season at No. 24 in the country, with an impressive 22-6 overall record, and finishing 8-3 in Big Ten play. They finished the last seven weeks comfortably inside the Top 25. They eventually fell to No. 4 Virginia, who reached the NCAA Semifinals.

Zinn expects the entire team to improve on marks from last year, and back up the high ranking the group has been given this season. Michael Reilly and Tomas Hanzlik, the only two returning seniors, look to provide leadership to a team that features five talented sophomores.

Leo Stakhovsky and Matt Barry, both of whom are juniors, are looking to improve on their stellar seasons.

"Stakhovsky had a fantastic year as a sophomore," Zinn said. "He's got to come back this year and back that up. You got to come back as good or better. That's what we want. The target's on his back because he did so well last year. Everyone is going to be gunning for him."

Barry who posted winning records in singles and doubles play, was very reliable last season when in crucial situations.

"We have Matt Barry who's our Mr. Clutch. He pulls a lot of matches out for us. We have some players that we expect big things from this year," said Zinn.

Sophomore Nika Dolidze and Tomas Hanzlik, who both had six wins each in singles this fall, head into the season ranked 59th in the ITA Doubles Poll. The pair's best win this this fall came against Clemson's 60th ranked Alejandro Augusto and Hunter Harrington.

Aws Laaribi, a sophomore who transferred from Wake Forrest, picked up five wins this fall, including three at the William & Mary Invitational. This fall was his first game action with Penn State. He described his decision to transfer to Penn State as an easy one.

"When I was looking at schools, Penn State was one of my top choices," said Laaribi. "When I saw them doing really well last season, I thought that it may be the best school for me."

Laaribi feels good about the team's chances in starting off the season well at the ITA Kick-Off Weekend and regular season play. He went on to credit the conditioning and fitness that Coach Zinn and his staff, which they hope pays off this season.

"I feel good about the team. We've been working on our fitness a lot, and we feel good going up against Kentucky. He's had a great preseason practice" said Coach Zinn. "He's going to be a great addition to our team in both doubles and singles."

After the ITA Kick-Off Weekend in Kentucky, seven of Penn State's next nine matches will be played at home. One of those home games will be against No. 5 Ohio State. Penn State is looking to capitalize on its success at home, posting a 15-0 record last season in Happy Valley.

"We do well at home. We have good crowds, and a great atmosphere at the indoor and outdoor tennis center," Zinn said. "Hopefully that non-conference portion of our schedule will help us going into and competing against Ohio State."

This year is looking to be another stout year for the conference, as two Big Ten teams are ranked inside the top 25. Ohio State and Illinois are ranked No. 5 and No. 11, respectively, as both advanced to the NCAA Tournament last year.

"The Big Ten is really strong this year. Illinois is going to be a top 5 - 10 team with Ohio State. Minnesota's a very good and very dangerous team. I think we're up in there with all those teams. I think we're very dangerous. We're returning five or six players, so hopefully everyone has gotten a bit better. We've added two new players. Hopefully we can make teams not so confident coming in to play us."

The Nittany Lions will look to improve on last season's success with a healthy balance of experience and talent. You can catch their first home matches against Penn, James Madison and Temple on Sunday, Feb. 1. If last season's success is any indication, opponents will have to bring their 'A game' when traveling to Happy Valley.