By Ryan Berti, GoPSUsports.com
Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The regular season has passed and the postseason is finally here. It's been a long road for the Nittany Lions but now as they have gotten through all their games, practices and classes, they have finally made it to the point they have been looking forward to all season long.
"I think this is the best part of the season," senior Abby Smucker said, while also talking about where the team left off last year in its tournament success. "We're just itching to get back to that spot and ultimately move further."
That excitement and hunger to accomplish more has been a driving force behind the team all season. But as the postseason begins, Penn State will also have redemption on its mind.
The two-seeded Blue and White's first round draw in the Big Ten Tournament will be familiar foe in three-seeded Northwestern, making it a rematch from last year's tournament semifinals.
In that matchup, the Nittany Lions fell to the Wildcats in a low-scoring 9-6 affair and would not be able to repeat their 2015 tournament title performance. Penn State in the end would have the last laugh, however, as they went deeper than their Chicago-based rivals in the NCAA tournament, making it all the way to the Final Four before falling to eventual champion North Carolina.
"Northwestern's going to offer us a tough battle, they always do, but I think we wouldn't want to play anyone else," Smucker said. "Having that tough competition on Friday, if we come out on top, will just prepare us for the championship game on Sunday."
A win Friday night against Northwestern will only bring with it an even tougher challenge. Waiting to face them on Sunday afternoon will be the victor of the Maryland-Johns Hopkins game.
Johns Hopkins this season gave the Nittany Lions a run for their money in a 16-10 bout that saw Penn State come out on top. Meanwhile, tournament host Maryland handed Penn State it's second loss of the regular season in potentially Happy Valley's final game this year. Either way, the road to the tourney title will be far from a walk in the park as any matchup presents a worthy challenge.
While the team knows the mountain they will have to climb in order to reach their ultimate goals of taking home both the Big Ten and NCAA championships, the players remain calm and poised.
This is a team that is stacked with big-game experience and has no need to act because they have been there before. Even the sophomores were a part of the deep NCAA that took place last May, so every player with at least one year's experience has had its chance to play under the spotlight that comes with national play.
Senior Natalie Schmitt feels this type of experience is one of the team's greatest assets and that they will be taking into battle with them the knowledge of how to thrive under pressure.
"We know we have to play hard and then be on top [of things] for the next game," Schmitt said.
The team also brings with them a new level of expectations, something the Nittany Lions will have to be aware of come tournament time.
"It's fun being the underdogs but I think maybe we're now under a little more pressure so we've got to keep working hard through the tough games," Schmitt said.
Along with the drive to succeed the calming presence of vast experience, the Lions will also be motivated by the added feeling of mortality in postseason play. With a unit this tightly knit after years of playing together, these players will do anything they can to keep pushing forward in order to get one more game with the teammates they share such a close bond with.
"Missy has said you never know which play is going to win the game," junior Katie O'Donnell said. "Give every moment everything you have, especially in postseason when it could be your last game, you don't know when it's going to be over."
The end of the season is on the horizon, but with experience and confidence this Nittany Lion team has, the group is ready to make a final push.