By Julie Bacanskas, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - As two-time defending Big Ten champions, the Nittany Lions know skill, mental toughness, and dedication are all required for success. Nevertheless, the team also understands the elevated level of competition that goes hand in hand with conference play, which it is looking forward to beginning on Sunday afternoon.
"I think it's almost like there's an extra added excitement to our conference play, just because we have such great respect for all of our opponents, and we certainty recognize the parody amongst the conference this year," stated field hockey head coach Charlene Morett. "I think that we just try to take each game one at a time. You try to be as sharp as you can on the road and hopefully you have more momentum playing at home, but you have to be on your toes all the time."
Before the start of conference play on Sunday, the Lions will face Miami (Ohio), a team with a 5-4 record on the season. Penn State is currently on a four game winning streak and has shut out three of its last four opponents.
"Obviously we have Miami of Ohio, who's had a pretty good run this season, much improved," said Morett. "We play them Saturday, so we can't really overlook them going into Indiana, but I think from a Big Ten standpoint, Indiana is a fun team to play. They're well coached. Their kids play hard, so it's always a competitive game."
As the Lions begin playing these Big Ten teams, they have a major goal in mind, defending their Big Ten Conference title. Last season, the team went 5-1 in conference play, losing only to Northwestern in a hard fought, overtime battle. Additionally, the No. 8 Lions currently possess the highest ranking of all Big Ten teams, yet the student athletes know winning a third-consecutive title will be no easy feat.
"I think all the Big Ten games are important, but knowing that we've won the past two years, obviously there is more pressure on other teams to try to beat us," stated senior captain Whitney Reddig (Lititz, Pa.).
In the coming weeks, the Lions will take on Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, and Michigan, all of whom are tough Big Ten competitors.
"I think I'm most excited knowing that every game is important in the Big Ten play," commented senior caption Brittany Grzywacz (Collegeville, Pa.), who just won her second-straight Big Ten defensive player of the week title. "Every game is important, but especially in conference play to come out with that conference title at the end. All of the teams are strong. There's Northwestern and Iowa (who) are highly ranked as well. Just knowing every game is a big game and going into each game with that mentality is important."
"I think it just brings a whole different level to our excitement and competitive attitude," added Reddig of Big Ten play. "It's league play now, so we all get excited. It's all good competition."
While the squad is excited for the Big Ten, they are also aware of the fact that they have room for improvement, especially after their early season struggles.
"I asked the captains that," said Morett, regarding which skills the team needs to improve upon. "I said, 'What do you see?' A couple things that they came up with were that we need to make some adjustments off the ball so we can find each other a little bit better to maintain possession and just again, individual defense, which will lead to better team defense."
The team does not only want to improve defensively, but also physical according to Grzywacz.
"I think maybe being a little bit more physical is important," stated Grzywacz. "The Big Ten is always usually physical games, so I think we need to improve that a little bit."
Both captains feel strongly that this week's practice will be extremely beneficial for the team, allowing the coaching staff to help them make these various improvements as the team looks to defend their Big Ten title.
"We know we take a lot of pride in being a member of the Big Ten Conference," stated Morett. "We certainly want to do our best to defend our title."