By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With the start of Big Ten play against 13th-ranked Wisconsin looming, No. 11 Penn State women's soccer welcomed the return of junior forwards Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram, who are back in Happy Valley after winning the U-20 Women's World Cup with the U.S. National Team.
The Nittany Lions (5-2-0) are looking to rebound following a grueling 3-1
loss at BYU last weekend in which the Cougars used a pair of second half goals
just two minutes apart to break a 1-1 tie and put the game out reach. Despite the setback, head coach Erica Walsh
remains confident in the improvements her team has made through seven games
"We're getting better every week right now and that's exactly our focus," said coach Walsh. "We've just finished game seven, going into game eight, and we've got some areas that need to be cleaned up and that's where we're at."
The focus in practice this week will be to integrate Hayes and Schram, their top two goal-scorers from last season, into an offense already full of talent. The dilemma couldn't be better for coach Walsh, who now has the opportunity to play a game of pick your poison with four capable forwards in Hayes, Schram, freshman phenom Mallory Weber and junior Tani Costa.
"I think we have a lot of good pieces and this just provides us with a different variety," said coach Walsh on the return of Hayes and Schram. "If a team throws something at us, we've got different ways to solve that now."
The addition of the dynamic duo from 2011 will provide a different element to the offense with Schram's lethal headers in the box and Hayes's remarkable ability to score virtually every time she touches the ball.
"Schram's aerial ability is unparalleled," praised coach Walsh. "She is one of the best in the country in the air. Maya's finishing ability is unique in that she gets one chance and she scores it, so right there you've got some different pieces."
Both Hayes and Schram understand that they've been gone a long time and in their absence the team has forged ahead, which means they will have to earn a spot in the starting lineup. Regardless of whether either of them sees playing time on game day, they know the team comes first.
"It's like coach said whenever we left that we're going to have to earn our spot back," said Schram. "We need to play hard and play together and whatever it is at the end of the day, we just want what's best for the team."
The concept is as straightforward as it gets: if you're good enough to be a starter, then you will play.
"If you're performing and you make yourself a starter, we're going to figure out how to get you on the field," said coach Walsh. "If we have twelve people in good form, that's a great problem to have."
Even with an offense as potent as the one Penn State has, beating Wisconsin will be no easy task. The Badgers are historically one of the most physical opponents the Nittany Lions will face. They have a seasoned head coach in Paula Wilkins, who once led Penn State to nine of its 14 consecutive Big Ten championships. Whatever the numbers on paper, Wisconsin will challenge Penn State in every facet of the game.
"[Wisconsin's] a good team," said coach Walsh. "We're also a big game on their schedule, so they get up for us and I give them all the credit in the world. They give us a great game every year."
"I think that we need to match the physical battle they bring," adds Schram, regarding one of the keys to defeating the Badgers. "This game is going to be a war and we need to be ready for it mentally and physically."
The fact that it's alumni weekend will only add to the hype already surrounding the game. Both coach Walsh and the players are excited to play in front of those who are at the heart of the Blue and White pride.
"One of the big reasons why we play at Penn State is because of the tradition," said Schram. "We play for those who played before us, so stepping on Jeffrey and embracing the legacy that they presented is an honor."
"We try to talk a lot about the history of this program in a way of respect of where we came from," said coach Walsh. "Just to realize where we are and where we came from and that we've got the best place in the country to play college soccer."
Among the alumni returning is former Penn State legend Carmelina Moscato, who has joined the Wisconsin coaching staff after winning a Bronze Medal with the Canadian National Team at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
The game is set to begin at 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon.