By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions didn't finish the regular season the way they wanted to, winning just one of their final four matches to drop to fifth place in the Big Ten before postseason play.
This was unheard of, as no Penn State team had ever finished worse than third in the conference since the program was born in 1994.
It wasn't as if the team was playing poorly, though.
The Blue and White allowed just three goals in those final four games and outshot its opponents 65-23 during that stretch. What was occurring on the field was as close to dominance as Penn State had shown all season.
There was just something missing.
The 2015 National Championship team had that something. Of course, that team had a stellar season from start to finish, but it seemed to flick a switch once the postseason arrived.
In the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments combined, the 2015 Nittany Lions scored 26 goals and surrendered just one in nine games. During that unconscious run, Penn State simply knew it was better than anyone who stepped on the field and proved it in dominating fashion.
That team found the late-season swagger necessary to pull off a magical NCAA tournament run.
Of the 27 women on that roster, 17 are still here, and just like the 2015 squad, this year's team has found its swagger just in time.
"What's most important is where you are at the end," head coach Erica Dambach said. "Right now I feel like we're peaking at the right time. I look back three weeks ago and I think that we were working towards this point but hadn't gotten over that threshold, and now I feel like this is a team with a winning mentality."
Dambach said she sees a lot of similarities with this year's team and the 2015 team, which projects well for the NCAA tournament beginning Friday.
"I think this team has come out with more grit honestly than that 2015 team," she said. "This team has more depth. I think that they've taken the virtual backpacks off with all the expectations and they're ready to go."
The first round game against Rutgers in the Big Ten tournament was the turning point for Penn State this year. After a rough finish to the regular season, the Nittany Lions played inspired soccer again and downed the Scarlet Knights in penalty kicks.
Redshirt junior Maddie Elliston said she felt a momentum shift within the team that game. She said it just felt different.
"We just came out 28 strong," Elliston said. "Our bench was crazy. The team was crazy on the field. We've changed some things up, changed our blueprint."
Penn State fed off that momentum to knock off top-seeded Ohio State then rally from one goal down to beat Northwestern 2-1 in the conference championship game.
The Nittany Lions went through two rain delays and a field change from outdoors to indoor turf to grind out the comeback win. That was a win the Penn State of three weeks ago might not have been able to pull off.
"Being down a goal and being in a weather delay--all of that just kind of shows how much grit our team has and how up for [the challenge] we are. I definitely think this weekend is going to help us going forward," senior Elizabeth Ball said.
Ball was one of the starters on the 2015 championship team. She's been through everything imaginable in her four years, and she said the mindset of the team right now is exactly where it needs to be.
"It's just an all-in mentality right now," Ball said. "The ups and downs are hard for any team but for us I think they've really just propelled us forward. You can just see it--the energy that we have on the bench and on the field. It's a whole different team honestly."
The team's mental confidence and cohesiveness on the field may be at its highest point of the entire season, but that's not the only reason for Penn State's newfound swagger.
The team is simply closer and more focused than ever. Elliston said the girls always strive to build a family environment off the field.
"I think the closest teams--those who really stay connected and believe in each other and care for each other--fight for each other on the field," she said. "We fight for our families. We fight for our coaches. We fight for Penn State, and it absolutely translates to the field."
Penn State gets to test its newfound swagger again Friday against Stony Brook for the first round of the NCAA tournament. The game will be played on Jeffrey Field at 7:30 p.m.
Dambach said the team is excited to get back on its home field and feed off the Happy Valley faithful.
She said the team has switched its mindset from the hunted to the hunter over the course of the season. Coming in to the season ranked No. 1 by TopDrawerSoccer, Penn State sputtered in the limelight. Now, with teams viewing them as an underdog, the Nittany Lions are on the prowl.
"We're anxious to start hunting together," Dambach said.