By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Nickolette Driesse is the sole senior in the young Penn State starting lineup this year, but her leadership alone isn't enough to guide this team deep into the NCAA tournament.
Penn State needs other players to step up and take leadership roles for its road to a repeat title. So far, Elizabeth Ball and Salina Williford have shown strong initiative in stepping into those positions.
"We talked about stepping up to help Nickolette and help the other captains and those are the two that I would point out that have just been outstanding over the past week," said head coach Erica Dambach.
The two called an impromptu team meeting to bring everyone together and get the squad focused on the task at hand. It's moments like those that make the difference during such an important time of year.
Both Ball and Williford have been the epitome of team players since they stepped foot in Happy Valley.
Ball was a prominent striker in high school who barely played any defense prior to her freshman year, but she didn't even hesitate Dambach asked her to fill a void in the back line as a center back.
"We recruited her as a striker, and in her first year the situation dictated that we needed her to play in the back line and she was a natural," Dambach said.
"It's very different," said Ball. "Honestly, without [coach Dambach] being able to show me the ropes and without the help of the past defenders I wouldn't be where I am today."
Ball possesses a strong team-centered attitude with little focus on her personal accomplishments. In her three years in Blue and White, Ball has placed winning over gaudy stats, which she racked up as a goal-scorer at Deep Run High School in Virginia.
She also scored 57 goals in four years for the Richmond Strikes ECNL. Ball was named an All-American in 2013 and 2014 and was nominated for Gatorade Virginia Player of the Year from 2012-2014, all while playing up top.
Ball said she never even tried her hand at defense until one soccer camp. Evidently, Dambach liked what she saw.
Ball has proved throughout her career that she's incredibly effective anywhere on the pitch, whether she's up top winning headers or thwarting an opposing attack.
Her hard work transitioning to center back paid off this year, as she was named to All-Big Ten first team for the first time in her career.
"It's incredible," Ball said. "I wouldn't have been able to do it without the back line and our whole team because everybody makes everybody else so much better. It's really like our team getting that honor."
"Elizabeth's a winner," Dambach said. It doesn't matter where you put her on the field. We've moved her around a bit, but she provides a tremendous amount of confidence for our staff and her team to have her in that back line."
Williford, a redshirt junior, has been just as flexible this season, moving from position to position to fill necessary holes.
She redshirted last year because of a season-ending injury after a strong sophomore campaign in which she started every game, scoring five goals and tallying five assists.
This season, Williford has taken a backseat on the offensive end to focus on defending. She's tallied four points on a goal and two assists playing primarily in the midfield, but she has also filled in next to ball on the back line when needed.
Williford is like Ball in that she can play anywhere on the pitch, which is so crucial for this team that has lost so many players from last season.
"Whatever the team really needs I'm willing to do," Williford said. "They only real difference I would say is the shift from offensive-minded to defensive-minded the moment I know I need to go back there."
Both Ball and Williford have been all-important cogs for Penn State this season on the field, but now they're taking in upon themselves to jump into leadership roles for a team lacking older, experienced players.
It's imperative that teams have trusted leaders on and off the field for the NCAA tournament. Last year, Raquel Rodriguez, Britt Eckerstrom, and Mallory Weber illustrated this.
This year, Ball and Williford have made it a priority to harness those lost leadership roles for Penn State's postseason journey to a repeat.
"They want ownership of this team right now," Dambach said. "They want to set the standard. They want to make their expectations of their teammates clear, and they want to make sure that everybody understands what the standard is for this team."