Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - As families gather around the country to celebrate Thanksgiving this week, one large family of 28 travels across the map to sunny Stanford, California, to celebrate the holiday a little differently than everyone else.
No. 10 Penn State will face off against powerhouse and No. 1 ranked Stanford in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Tournament Friday at 5 p.m. (EST) instead of celebrating turkey day with their families.
For most players on the team, there's no where they'd rather spend Thanksgiving.
"I love being with my family, but this has been my whole life," senior Frannie Crouse said. "This is what we've worked toward and they understand that. I wish I could be with them, but my family is here. We are such a family and we enjoy each other's company."
The Nittany Lions, who have become incredibly close since beginning their postseason run, had Thanksgiving dinner at head coach Erica Dambach's house Tuesday night. It wasn't exactly what they're used to, but that just means the team is still alive for another national championship.
Senior Elizabeth Ball went through the same process in 2015 when she was a part of Penn State's first-ever national title. The team played into December and missed valuable family time, but she said the family that has constituted in Happy Valley makes it all worth it.
For Penn State, the strong bond that has formed in recent weeks has propelled the team into the quarterfinal round. The Nittany Lions are playing their best soccer of the year, and there's a renewed confidence glowing from each player.
"From the Big Ten tournament straight through the NCAA tournament now we're playing good soccer," Dambach said. "We've put together six, seven game here where we feel like we're playing some of our best. We're peaking at the right time."
Peaking at the right time. Sound familiar?
The 2015 team peaked at the end of the season and shut out every team in the NCAA Tournament on their way to the national title. This year's Nittany Lions are now looking almost as dominant and as complete as that squad was.
Penn State has scored 12 goals in three tournament games--the team's best stretch all season. Six different players have scored and 10 different players have tallied assists in the NCAA Tournament.
Penn State just beat a national championship contender in West Virginia in the Sweet 16. West Virginia was the runner-up last year and was ranked No. 7 before falling to Penn State.
The Mountaineers scored first in the match, which usually guarantees a victory. Just not against this team.
Penn State answered five minutes later with a goal from Alina Ortega Jurado before Ball and Crouse added to the lead.
"The belief in this group right now is stronger than I've ever felt," Dambach said. "We went down a goal against West Virginia at their place in the Sweet 16 game, and I don't think that there was a single player of the 28 that felt like we were going to lose that game."
One of the biggest reasons the Nittany Lions believe they can run the table and beat anyone in the tournament is their strong nonconference schedule played early in the year. Penn State played West Virginia, BYU, North Carolina, and Virginia earlier this year.
"Our coaching staff set us up in the beginning of preseason to play teams that would put us under pressure, so I think that we're all extremely ready," Ball said. "I think that everybody, whether they've been on the team one year or four years, they're ready for what's to come."
Stanford will undoubtedly be Penn State's toughest test so far this year. The Cardinal is 21-1-0 and has won 19 straight matches since losing to Florida in August. They've been ranked the No. 1 team in the country for four straight weeks.
Stanford has outscored opponents 82-7 this year. They average a gaudy 25.5 shots per game and 3.73 goals per game.
"They like to keep possession. They like to keep the ball. They're really comfortable on the ball, so we expect a really good team on both sides of the ball. They're in the Elite Eight for a reason, but I like the way we're playing right now and I like the opportunity to go out there and play one of the best teams in the country."
The challenge may be daunting, but Penn State isn't shying away from the challenge one bit.
"We look at it as another game," Crouse said. "We've learned rankings mean absolutely nothing. They're an outstanding team and we look forward to playing them, but at this point rankings mean nothing to us."