By Mike Gilbert, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - A few weeks ago, head coach Amanda Lehotak's squad was scheduled to practice in Holuba Hall, an indoor sports complex shared by many of the Penn State varsity sports. While the team waited for the football team to finish up practice in preparation for the annual Blue & White game, a coach came out and informed Lehotak that the team would be running late and working extra practice that night, forcing Lehotak and her staff to audible and find a different place to practice.
Yes, football dominates the equation when it comes to Penn State athletics. But, the softball team knows that it has carved out an important niche in the Penn State athletic community, and it shows with team attendance this season. It also showed last year when, on the same day James Franklin's squad took the field of Beaver Stadium for the yearly spring exhibition, Beard Field was also hosting a sold-out crowd.
In 2016, while a crowd of 65,000 fans piled in to catch a first glimpse of what would be a Rose Bowl Nittany Lion football team, right across the street the softball team experienced its first sellout crowd ever at Beard Field, with over 1,100 fans rooting on the Blue & White on the softball diamond. Coach Lehotak believes the fan support makes a huge difference in her team's on-field performance.
"There's a reason that we win more [at home]. The energy that people bring, I think fans can help [our] will to win. I think that's what happened against Indiana. I think that's what happened against Ohio State," said Lehotak.
"For us to be at home to feed off the energy [of the fans], to feed off the music they're playing, the 8,000 people we expect to show up this weekend, I absolutely think that's a major advantage," added Lehotak.
Lehotak's theory seems to have some truth behind it. Over the last last three home series, the Lions took two out of three contests against Indiana, and split a two-game series with the 25th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, including a masterful pitching performance by Marlaina Laubach in game one, and swept Bucknell with some clutch hitting. In each series, there were a huge number of fans rooting on the team, even in some brisk weather.
The team has been playing much better of late, but there is one thing Lehotak knows her players can improve upon. Eliminating that one bad inning, and putting together quality efforts in all three phases of the game - hitting, pitching and defense.
"We're starting to have all three elements playing really well, but now all three elements have to finish, versus letting the game slip away. So that's going to be our goal going into this week," said Lehotak.
"I like how we played against Indiana. I like how we played against Ohio State...Our one bad inning, whether it's the first, the fifth, the seventh, we have to stop that, so that's kind of going to be our approach; we have to learn how to finish," she added.
Continuing that climb to get over the hump starts Friday night, when Big Ten foe Rutgers travels to Happy Valley to play the Nittany Lions in a three game set, spread out across three days of Blue & White weekend. The three game set will be played on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at 6 p.m., 5 p.m., and 1 p.m., respectively.
Saturday's pregame festivities should give the club a little extra morale boost on a busy day for Penn State athletics. The buzz of Blue & White weekend will be on full display Saturday, with Curtin Road closed off beginning at 10am for the Blue-White Mini Carnival and Fan Festival, including a live performance by My Hero Zero scheduled for 11 a.m. In addition to what should be a full house at both Beard Field and Beaver Stadium, the baseball team laces up the cleats against Northwestern at Medlar Field just down the road.
It will be a busy day on the northeast part of Penn State's campus, but with an expected full house for all three games against Rutgers, the team should be primed and ready to continue their recent good play and move up the Big Ten standings.