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By Astrid Diaz, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Freshman year of college is an anticipated, yet slightly feared, time when you finally leave the nest of your hometown and soar into the world of independent living, unknown roommates, and questionable dining hall meals.

If you're a student-athlete, on top of it all, you're thrown into the world of division I athletics full of 20-40 hour training weeks, hours of traveling, and top level opponents - what can be fairly described as intimidating.

Freshman Xavier Smith joined the Nittany Lions in August as a one of the nation's top competitors and among the top three track athletes in his district and county. He is a football player turned sprinter from the small town of Douglasville, Pennsylvania who is drawing a lot of attention this season.

The population in Douglasville is 448 - about five percent of Penn State's total incoming freshman and just about half of the entire body of Penn State student-athletes.

So, to say his move from Douglasville to Happy Valley was intimidating is an understatement.

However, with the support of his family, which has been strong since his first day on the rubber, Smith has submerged fiercely into the life of a full-time division I sprinter with no signs of slowing down.

"In high school, I did it for fun my junior year and then senior year I started to get more serious," said Smith. "[Collegiate training is] a new experience and I was trying different things. I had never really had workouts this hard. It was kind of different....[but] I started to get the hang of it. I had to take it day by day."

His teammates also play a huge role in his success acting as another direct source of support.

"I didn't know what to expect but they were there for me if I had any questions. There are here to help me and show me the ropes and help [me] work toward our goals," he said. "I use my teammates' energy to help me go out there and do the best that I can. If I do well, I know that might help someone else do well and it's a chain reaction."

On various occasions you'll hear the team describe itself as a family - a very competitive, very ambitious family.

"Alex Shisler actually told me, 'It doesn't matter what kind of work out you had yesterday. It could have been the best work out you've ever had or the worst work out you've ever had but, today is a different day so try and make today the best work out that you can get out of it'," he said.

To his teammates, Smith is respectful, laid back, and focused. To his coaches he is the definition of a true competitor. But, you don't have to take their word for it.

In his four outings in the 60-meter dash this year, Smith has improved his time every single race. In December, Smith posted a time of 6.91 seconds during the Blue and White Intrasquad Meet. In his last time out, he ran at a season-best performance of 6.87 seconds.

In the 200-meter dash, Smith is consistent with his improvement as well and is dancing dangerously on the edge of a personal record. Last weekend, Smith posted a season best time of 21.54 seconds, .04 of a second from his personal best.

He's also an important fourth of the men's 4x400-meter relay quartet that ran a season best time of 3:12.61 last weekend at the Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

"I'm doing a good job so far but I know there is still room for improvement. There are expectations that still can be reached but...it's alright so far. It can be better," said Smith.

As Smith looks towards the competition to come, he looks forward to the challenges and reflects on all that has changed within the last few months when he stepped onto Happy Valley grounds for the first time.

No one can predict where he or she will end up but Smith is confident that he's headed in the right direction.

"[I'm going to] keep trying new things," he said. "Whenever you try new things there's more that's good that can come out of it than bad. You never know where you're going to end up."

As they say, the best is yet to come.

By Miranda Kulp, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Named the seventh softball coach in program history in 2013, Amanda Lehotak arrived in Happy Valley with the dedication and passion to revamp the Penn State softball program.

Her first season with the Blue and White concluded with a 14-35 overall record and a 5-18 Big Ten mark, showing improvement by finishing a spot higher in the conference standings than the year prior. With her sophomore season now in full swing, Lehotak and her squad have big plans for the 2015 season.

"I think a big theme for this year is rebuilding, and really showing what this team has to offer," said Lehotak.

Currently 6-4 and off to its best start in six seasons, the team is showing what they have to offer; toughness and grit which enables them to fight until the very end.

Being from Nebraska, I knew I always wanted to be up North. I see a toughness in these players and the people here you don't see as much down south," Lehotak said. "These are some of the toughest girls I've coached so far and I can't wait to see what the season brings them this year."

Although Lehotak means business on the field, she also knows how to connect with her players as people.

"Coach runs the show expecting greatness while understanding how each of us work as individuals," said Furuya. "She recognizes each of our tendencies and can tailor her coaching toward our needs, which is awesome."

While she has a true intensity within her, the second year coach takes the time to get to know each of her players and understands there's no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to coaching.

"She has a good type of intensity that can make us into a stronger team," said Furuya.

With the combination of her love for the sport and understanding of its players, Lehotak hopes to take Penn State to the next level.

"I think this season is going to be a good one for us. We have a lot of heart and we're rebuilding this already great softball program," said Lehotak.

Penn State travels to Mississippi State this weekend for a three-game weekend series against the Bulldogs. The Blue and White will continue its road swing until its first home game on March 18th against Pittsburgh. 

 

 

 

 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The third campaign for Penn State women's hockey has reached historic levels as the regular season draws to a close. With a program-record 15 wins, and a nine-fold increase in College Hockey America (CHA) wins, the Nittany Lions are flying high with the CHA Playoffs approaching.

While all aspects of Penn State's game have been solid, one major facet of the Nittany Lions' success can be attributed to the sisterhood and extraordinarily tight bond among the team. 

Like any family, each Nittany Lion would do whatever she could to help out her sister. That selflessness extends to Penn State's play on the ice, which frequently includes diving in front of a slap shot.

"I would say our team is very selfless," said junior captain Jordin Pardoski. "There isn't one thing that one girl wouldn't do for another, so blocking shots is just really a part of the family atmosphere and vibe that we have going here ... We're family-oriented. Each of us looks at each other as sister. "

Pardoski and her defense partner freshman Remi Martin have combined for 62 blocks this season, while sophomore Kelly Seward and freshman Bella Sutton have thrown themselves in front of 91 shots. 

But blocking a shot does more than stifle a strong forecheck. A well-timed and perfectly-placed blocked shot can be a major momentum swing for a team.

 "It's a boost for the whole bench. It's a momentum changer," said head coach Josh Brandwene. "It's a badge of honor thing that all players, forwards and 'D' are responsible for. If you have an opportunity and the moment to get in the lane, sacrifice yourself a little bit on behalf of the team." 

Penn State's strong shot blocking game has also been evident in the solid play of the Nittany Lions' netminders, freshman Hannah Ehresmann and junior Celine Whitlinger. The goalies have combined for a 2.40 goals against average, over .50 lower than the previous program record of 2.98, set in 2012-13. Individually, Whitlinger is a two-time CHA Goaltender of the Month and Ehresmann has earned CHA Rookie of the Week honors.

Throwing oneself into the line of fire with a small piece of rubber careening at a high speed could be called crazy for some. But for the Nittany Lions, nothing gives them the thrill more than the selfless act of blocking a shot.

"It's like a mini pump up for us," said Pardoski. "The whole bench gets going when someone has a blocked shot. It's just a change of momentum. It's exciting."

The Penn State Nittany Lions will play in Pegula Ice Arena for the regular season finale this Friday and Saturday against Robert Morris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beitz Looking to Build Momentum After Impressive Pin

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10801452.jpegBy Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For Penn State wrestler Zack Beitz, last March was the definition of bittersweet.


The redshirt freshman had filled a void for the Nittany Lions all of last season at 149 pounds, but when the postseason arrived, he was relegated to the sidelines as senior teammate James English won the starting spot and helped Penn State win both the Big Ten and NCAA Championships.

While he was happy for his teammates, Beitz was still disappointed that he wasn't able to contribute in the biggest tournaments of the year.

"You're still cheering for your teammates, you're with them every day and you want to see them succeed," Beitz said. "It definitely helped motivate me though. Kept me focused on my goals and things like that."

Now a year later, Beitz has started every dual for Penn State at 149 after taking the mat for 10 of them last year. While his season has had some ups and downs, the sophomore delivered the biggest win of his career last weekend at Oklahoma State.

In a match between two of college wrestling's great programs, Beitz found himself matched up against Josh Kindig, last year's NCAA runner-up and the fourth-ranked grappler at their weight. The underdog, Beitz shocked the Oklahoma State crowd by pinning Kindig off of a reversal to start the second period.

Having lost a close 5-3 match to Kindig last year, it wasn't surprising to see Beitz hold his own. Still, seeing him completely dismantle an All-American with one move after a scoreless first period was an incredible moment for a Penn State team that needs bonus points wherever it can get them.

"[Last year's match helped with] just a lot of little things," Beitz said. "I knew what kinds of shots he was going off of and that kind of thing. Just being familiar with his style and knowing what to look out for. You go into a match not expecting to lose. I just told myself, I always go in trying to score bonus points. Just wrestling to the best of my abilities.

"It was exciting. Also just wrestling in Oklahoma [State], they had a good environment, a lot of people there so it was cool."

The win was Beitz's first dual meet pin of the season and improved his record in such meets to 10-4 while also bumping him up from 18th to 14th in the national rankings. Apart from the numbers, the victory gives the Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, native confidence that he can beat top-ranked opponents with this year's postseason right around the corner.

Keeping matches close has never been an issue for Beitz, whose last two matches against top-10 guys resulted in a 6-4 loss to No. 2 Brandon Sorensen of Iowa and a 6-5 win over No. 9 Alec Pantaleo of Michigan. With the fall over Kindig now in the 149-pounder's pocket, the Nittany Lions staff is excited to see what Beitz can do moving forward.

"The last month Zack continues to improve, and a guy like that where he's been right on that edge, last year he was real close with the top guys, and this year he's starting to beat them," head coach Cael Sanderson said. "Confidence if everything. You're going to be a bit more bold and shooting with more intent. It's a good time to get things rolling, but Zack's always going to go out and swing it."

With the Nittany Lions featuring a much younger lineup than in years past, they will need extra production from every wrestler when the Big Ten Tournament kicks off on March. 7. Though it will be his first postseason trip, Beitz is looking forward to the challenge.

"I haven't ever competed there, so I'm excited," Beitz said. "It should be a cool experience."


Brown Thankful for Penn State Experience as Senior Day Approaches
For Matt Brown, going to college hasn't been like it is for most people, or even for most athletes.

Over the past seven years, the Penn State wrestling captain has attended two schools, lived in two continents, gotten married, been a part of three national championship squads and been an All-American twice.

Now, with his final home match approaching on Sunday against Rider, Brown is trying to stay focused while also reflecting on his journey.

"I've been fulfilled at Penn State socially, academically, obviously athletically with wrestling," Brown said. "It's been everything I hoped for in a school. I'm grateful for my coaches and the support structure I've had with my family."

Although he is known by Nittany Lions fans as the lynchpin of Penn State's lineup, a guy who racked up a 110-15 record over the past four years, Brown is so much more than that.

For starters, he's managed to balance being one of the best wrestlers in the country with being a member of Army ROTC, maintaining a near perfect GPA, and being a husband. As incredible as that sounds, Brown's story goes deeper than that.

The West Valley City, Utah, native spent his redshirt-freshman year at Iowa State, where Sanderson was coaching at the time. The wrestler then spent the next two years in Africa on a mission for the Mormon Church before transferring to Penn State upon returning.

While he has achieved the aforementioned accomplishments on the mat since then, Brown is someone that Sanderson will remember more for how he acted when he wasn't competing.

"He's done great things," Sanderson said. "He's a leader, just by example, academically. Socially he's not a guy we have to worry about, he's a guy that's going to be very successful in life. If he goes after it he can end this season the way he wants."

What Brown wants isn't a secret to anybody. After finishing as the NCAA runner-up two years ago and coming in fifth place last season, the senior is striving for an individual national title. This Sunday may be a reminder of some great times in a blue and white singlet, but for Brown, the most important stretch of his career is yet to begin.

"It's one more chance to wrestle in Rec Hall so it'll be fun, I've had some fun matches there," Brown said. "I can appreciate the dual season coming to a close but now I kind of have to worry about myself. Obviously [a national title] is my goal and what I'm aiming for, but I can look back and say I did everything I could." 

Former Men's Lacrosse Player Donates Bone Marrow

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10801374.jpegBy Maria Canales, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Former men's lacrosse player Kyle VanThof underwent a bone marrow donation on Feb. 9.


In November of 2012, the Penn State men's lacrosse team hosted a swab drive to attempt to find a bone marrow match for then-player Drew Roper's mother, Kim. Roper's mother had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and needed a bone marrow transplant to aid in her fight against the disease. As part of this swab event, many Penn State student-athletes participated and incredibly, one became a match.

In early 2014, as a result of his participation in the Match4Kim swab drive, men's hockey player David Glen found out he was a match for a woman needing a bone marrow transplant. Although he had to sit out a few games in the middle of the season, Glen knew the choice was clear and didn't hesitate to help.

More recently, VanThof found out he was a match for someone needing the life-saving transplant. VanThof had visited his former teammate Drew Roper, just three days prior to finding out he himself was a match. Roper's mother, who was the inspiration for the swab drive in 2012, unfortunately still has not found a match.  

VanThof quickly participated in further testing before undergoing the operation just over a week ago. Finding out he was a match was both surprising and life changing for VanThof.

"I was extremely excited, it was an opportunity to give someone more time with their family, and their family more time with them," said VanThof. "It was a pretty long process, and I was hoping that everything would work out. I believe it has, and there is so much more left to finish the journey with her that I hope we get a chance to be a part of each others lives."

Playing midfield, VanThof spent his years with Penn State men's lacrosse making an impact both on and off the field. His redshirt junior season, VanThof started all 17 games and scored six goals with eight assists. VanThof described his time on the team.

"Unforgettable, I would never exchange my experience for the world," said VanThof. "I still keep in touch with so many of my teammates because we have built a family atmosphere. These were the only guys I spent time with for five years."

Head coach Jeff Tambroni remembers VanThof as a player who treated his teammates like family and thought of other people's needs before his own.

"It's one thing to be a match but it's another thing to actually go through with it," said Tambroni. "Kyle was not only a match but chose to go through with it. I think it speaks volumes about Kyle's selflessness and willingness to kind of look out away from just his own being or his own day-to-day tasks to help somebody else in need."

Due to privacy restrictions VanThof has not been in communication with the woman who would receive the life-saving transplant.

"There are rules with communicating with the person, so at this moment in time I have not heard from her," said VanThof. "I will get updates on how she is doing and so forth, but until the first year hits and we choose whether or not to disclose our personal information we can only communicate through letters that are read by Be The Match."

Despite the lack of direct communication, VanThof knows his contribution is being received with great appreciation. Also appreciative of his donation are his family, friends and former teammates who have supported him through the process.

"Everyone that I have spoken to has been extremely supportive," said VanThof. "It's actually an honor because not everyone gets a chance like this to do something for someone in need."

The whole process he has been through these past few weeks has encouraged VanThof and has inspired him to share his story. VanThof urges that becoming a donor and getting swabbed is very important because it not only can save someone's life, but also change your own.

"Everyone should join because it's such a great cause and awareness needs to be raised on the subject," said VanThof. "To be a match and give someone another year, let alone maybe even only a day with their loved ones, is a tremendous opportunity."

Football Completes More than 1,900 Hours of Community Service in 2014

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pumpkin_carving.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Head coach James Franklin frequently talks about being successful in all facets of a football program.

Simply put, he wants each member of the program to have the entire package - athletically, academically, spiritually and in the community.

On the heels of ending Franklin's first season with a thrilling 31-30 victory over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl and a stellar fall semester academically, the Nittany Lion football program set the benchmark for success off the field during the summer and fall of 2014, completing a program-record of more than 1,900 total hours of community service.

Beginning with volunteer hours at the Pennsylvania Special Olympics Summer Games on June 6 and ending on Dec. 26 with a visit to Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York, members of the football program participated in more than 30 different community service events during the summer and fall semesters in 2014.

A pre-season highlight was a trip to Hershey Medical Center on July 23. The entire team boarded buses for a drive to Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital just before the start of training camp. The team visited with patients and their families in different sections of the hospital.

"There is nothing more important than taking the time to share a smile with somebody and making a positive impact on their life," Franklin said. "Having this type of visit, it puts things in perspective for us."

The list of events includes 23 community service engagements during the football regular season. Highlighting the list was the United Way's Day of Caring, which takes place each October in State College. Approximately 50 members of the team used an off day during a bye week to give back to the community by helping with the upkeep of Centre Furnace Mansion.

Additionally, nearly 25 members of the team
and LifeLink special education students carved and painted pumpkins on the patio of the Lasch Building on Oct. 16.  Approximately a dozen members of the team played games and participated in the Buddy Walk at Medlar Field to help raise awareness for children with special needs and support the Centre County Down Syndrome Society on Oct. 18.

In November, the football program adopted Noah Benner through Friends of Jaclyn foundation as an "official" member of the team. Members of the staff gave Noah and his family a tour of the football facility before meeting and speaking with the team at practice.

The Nittany Lions also gave Deven Jackson, a Perry County, Pennsylvania native, an opportunity to tour the football facility and visit with the team at practice. Jackson, who suffered from kidney failure and lost both of his legs to meningitis, inspired the team by competing in youth football with two prosthetic legs.

The week leading up to Thanksgiving was a big time period for community service. The Nittany Lions spent time participating in "Roar for Reading" at local elementary schools, visited The Village, a State College retirement community, spent time with children at the Bellefonte Youth Service Bureau and helped the State College Food bank move more than 2,000 pounds of food.

The long list of community service opportunities is met with tremendous enthusiasm from the student-athletes on the roster. The members of the team jump at the opportunity to lend a hand in the community.

"I absolutely love it," freshman linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "It keeps you grounded. Obviously, you like to do it because you want to help the community as much as possible, but it helps me as a person. You grow and you get to see just how fortunate you are. It makes you appreciate all of the things around you."

Also in 2014, the Penn State chapter of Uplifting Athletes set new heights with fundraising efforts surrounding the 12th Annual Penn State Uplifting Athletes "Lift For Life" held on July 12. The chapter raised a record $151,990 last year, bringing the cumulative total to more than $1 million to benefit the Kidney Cancer Association.

Looking ahead, the latter stages of February will be another busy time for the Nittany Lions in the community. The team and staff will again play a big role in the THON festivities beginning on Saturday. The Lions will host their annual THON 2015 Explorers Program (The Football Experience). Members of the team will provide a tour of the building and have an ice cream social with Four Diamonds children and their families.

The Lions will also participate during THON's "Athlete Hour" on Saturday afternoon, in addition to dancing on stage as part of the annual pep rally on Saturday night.

Penn State's community service activity adds to the program's outstanding semester off the field. The team produced a record-setting academic performance during the fall 2014 semester, with 51 squad members earning at least a 3.0 grade-point average, the second-highest total in program history.

The squad set program records with 25 student-athletes earning Dean's List (GPA of 3.5 or better) recognition, 57 players owning a cumulative 3.0 GPA or higher after the fall semester and 21 true freshmen posting a 3.0 GPA or better last fall.

Additionally, a Big Ten Conference-high 16 members of the football team had earned their degrees prior to the Nittany Lions' win in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl to rank in the top 10 percent among all Football Bowl Subdivision institutions.

Penn State returns 15 starters (7 offense, 7 defense, 1 specialist), and 14 additional players who have started, for the 2015 season. The Blue-White Game is set for April 18 in Beaver Stadium at 4 p.m. and the season opener is Sept. 5 at Temple.





Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: This Week in Penn State Wrestling - Feb. 19

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - GoPSUsports.com catches up with Matt Brown (174 pounds) leading up to his final match inside Rec Hall. The fifth-year senior and the Nittany Lions will meet Rider on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the 2014-'15 regular season finale.

Floor: The Art of Story Telling

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By Gabrielle Richards, GoPSUsports Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Performance, precision and power: the key ingredients to any competitive collegiate floor routine. For the Penn State women's gymnastics team, floor is strength; and neither the coaches nor the gymnasts understand how they have become so strong in this event; they say it "just happened." But, for anyone who has seen them perform and practice, it didn't just happen; they have truly earned it.


"We teach the girls a simple phrase for them to repeat in their heads as they start their floor routines," associate head coach Rachelle Thompson said. "It helps them relax and calm down before they perform."

Throughout the season, the team has routinely scored above a 49 on floor, achieving a season high of a 49.400 against Michigan State. Four gymnasts have scored the coveted "9.900" this season, including freshman Oni Timothy, sophomore Emma Sibson and senior Krystal Welsh. Freshman Briannah Tsang has gone as far as to secure a 9.925, the highest for the team this season.

Performance
Floor routines are exciting, as they combine various skills and technique, along with dance. Floor is the only event paired, specifically, with music in gymnastics. The music helps tell a story, one that has new chapters added to it as the gymnasts become more comfortable with their routines and their style.

"It is a never ending process," Thompson said. "Some of the girls come in with routines and music and sometimes we have to start from scratch. It is so great to see how the routines change as the season goes on. You get to watch the girls grow into their own. As a coach, you get to help them tell that story."

Precision
The coaching staff members are sticklers for "performing how you practice." Often, they say the girls are better in practice than they are in the meets. You might say there is a science to how the Thompsons run their practices, a formula that has been proven time and time again since they took over the program in 2010. They devote large portions of their practices to each gymnast working on one single event, instead of having them doing various events at the same time. During these sessions, the girls even cheer like they do in meets, so that competition day is a seamless transition from the practice gym.

"We train really hard on floor," Timothy said. "I don't know if it is a combination of what rotation we get during the meet and practice, but we are really good a this event. I love it because as soon as the music starts, you know that everyone looking at you. Nailing a routine or tumbling pass is the best feeling."

Power
Performing inside of a taped-off square can be intimidating. If you go out of bounds, deduction. If you hold a pose too long, deduction. If you miss a landing, deduction. To say it is stressful would be an understatement.

"Floor is a very mental event," Tsang said. "You have to have a real sense of who are as a gymnast to make it through the minor missteps that happen. You just have to say to yourself, if you go out of bounds, just keep moving."

As the routines change throughout the season, the skill levels of the tumbling combinations change, too. Penn State has a roster of powerful gymnasts. The way they attack each routine and land with such definition after a tumbling pass speaks to their training.

"It is funny, sometimes the easier routines are the hardest for them." Thompson said. "We have to give them challenging passes and routines because they have so much adrenaline. They are so strong that if we were to give them an easy tumbling pass, they will go out of bounds, simply because they have so much power. Harnessing that energy is challenging, but it is so fun to watch them do what they do best." 

THON and the Roar Zone Inspire the Lions as Minnesota Comes to Town

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By Julie Bacanskas, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State men's hockey team loves playing in Pegula Ice Arena. Head coach Guy Gadowsky talks about the building and the energetic crowds after every game in Hockey Valley, and the team's 10-1-3 home record speaks for itself.

Yet, the Nittany Lions do not take all the credit for their dominance on home ice. The support the student section gives each and every weekend motivates them to play their best hockey. In a way, the Roar Zone gives the Blue and White an extra edge, an extra advantage.

"It's amazing," said forward Curtis Loik of the atmosphere. "It's why I came here. When you first see this place and you see what Pegula built and the infrastructure and the whole Roar Zone, it's unbelievable to play in. They're loud, and they motivate us to get going. If we're down, they bring us up."

The Roar Zone, which many believe to be the pride and joy of Pegula Ice Arena, is always filled when the Lions are in town. The students cheer, make signs, dress up and are constantly involved with every aspect of the game.

The Penn State student body is a source of inspiration for the hockey team, as it constantly feeds of the section's energy.

"I think every game they've gotten better with the chants, even Wisconsin when they had that massive banner," Loik said. "You know, that's exciting to come out and see that. It just fires us up."

This weekend as Minnesota comes into town, however, the student section's makeup may look a bit different. With THON, and 46 hours of dancing, taking place across the street in the Bryce Jordan Center, many students will be unable to attend the games.

Nevertheless, that does not mean their tickets will go unused. Instead of empty seats, the Roar Zone will be filled with THON families. The students decided to donate their tickets to those affected by pediatric cancer.

Following the games, the Nittany Lions will also be joining the Penn State student body, and their THON child Colton Buckley, over in the BJC. The men's hockey team has been heavily involved with THON since before its days as a DI program.

"Everybody, I think, falls in love with Penn State in their own ways, and really for me, THON was just so amazing," said Gadowsky. "I personally believe it's the best thing that any university does. It's such a great cause. You know, everybody talks about the passion of our student body, our alumni, our supporters, and I think THON builds a lot of that."

The Lions will take part in the annual Pep Rally, showing off their dance moves to all in attendance at THON, but they understand the bigger picture. They want to do all they can for the kids.

"Colton, our THON child, he's been around us for a few years now," Loik said. "He's such an inspiration to us. To have someone of that character and what he's been through around us, it really make you think how much we have to appreciate. Coming up, it's going to be a lot of fun, and it's a big weekend for our school."

Before the excitement of THON can begin for the men's hockey team, it will have to face No. 15 Minnesota. The Lions (15-9-4, 7-4-1 B1G) are looking to snap their two game losing streak, while the Gophers (16-9-3, 7-2-3 B1G) want to keep their dominant play rolling.

"I think last weekend will tell you all you need to know," Gadowsky said of the Gophers, who most recently swept Michigan. "The team that's scoring more goal than anybody in the NCAA they held to two goals on the weekend. They held them to, I believe, 49 shots. So, defensively they had a tremendous weekend. They're very tough to play against. On the other hand, they scored eight goals.

"You are going to see high-quality hockey. You're also going to see pretty hockey, and you're going to see fast hockey. So, to give you a preview in terms of what we're looking at, you can't say we're going to stop this line because they're very deep. We can't say if we just don't take any penalties we're going to be ok. They are really deep. They are very skilled at every position. They're going to come at you with speed and with skill, and you have to beat them with good hockey."

Even if the Roar Zone does not take on its usual composition this weekend, the Nittany Lions will feel the support. The students have strengthened the team time and time again, but now the team will look for inspiration in the young fans, like Colton Buckley, who are in attendance.

Penn State is playing for more than just itself this weekend. The Lions are playing for the kids.

"It's amazing what those kids do, and they deserve everything in the world," said Loik. "To give a few tickets away to these special people, it'll inspire us even more. Even if the Roar Zone's not as full, those families coming to those games, we play for them. We play for what they've been through."

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By Anita Nham, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Having the opportunity to compete against some of the best athletes in the nation during one's lifetime is something few people can say they have done, but for senior Craig Hernandez and junior Trevor Howard that is exactly what they will be doing this weekend.

Hernandez and Howard will be competing in the Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas, Nev., on Feb. 19 and 21.

"I'm actually really excited," said Hernandez. "It should be fun. Getting back to some of the individual styles of gymnastics that's like before college and of course, it's nice and warm out there and it's frigid here."

These two Nittany Lions will be leaving the comforts of Rec Hall for a two-day competition where they will be taking on the top gymnasts in the country.

"They will be with guys that competed in the World Championships in the United States and Olympic Games," said head coach Randy Jepson. "It's the top gymnasts. It's not just collegiate guys there - it's people that are post-grads, the best the US has to offer, so it's a good chance to compete with some of the best guys."

Facing off against the best gymnasts in the country can be intimidating, but Hernandez and Howard don't plan for that to affect their performances.

"It's a little intimidating [to be competing against the best in the country], but we wouldn't be going there if we weren't good ourselves and that's the way I look at it," said Hernandez. "I want to beat them and we'll try to beat them."

This Penn State duo is familiar with the scene at the Winter Cup as both have been part of the competition in previous years. Hernandez placed first in pommel horse for the past two years and last year, he earned the title with a score of 14.350. Though getting a third win is ideal, that isn't the main emphasis for Hernandez.

"Maybe a little bit of expectation [is there], but I don't really look at it," said Hernandez. "I just focus on doing the best gymnastics that I can."

Out of the 42 gymnastics in the 2014 Winter Cup last year, Howard placed 17th-overall with an all-around score of 81.750 in the finals. Even with that grand accomplishment, Howard is only focusing on being better.

"Basically, I go out there and just think, 'This is for yourself. What you do is on you,' so I kind of make it more myself-oriented than team-oriented," said Howard. "I feel like there are always high expectations. I always set my standards higher than normal, so I want to plan on getting Top-10. A lot of guys are injured, so this is the time to step up and make the [Senior National Team]."

Although the Winter Cup and NCAA meets are vastly different, the toughest challenge will be the fact that their fellow teammates will not be alongside them.

"It definitely is [hard to go to Las Vegas without the team]," said Howard. "Having the team behind you and hearing them cheer your name when you're doing your routine is awesome, so it's definitely a little more quieting."

Besides competing individually, Hernandez and Howard will have the opportunity to watch their other opponents.

"You get the chance to see the rest of the guys in the country from the other teams and outside the NCAA structure - what the best are doing, so that gives you some ideas to what you need to compete against," said head coach Jepson. "You got to know your opponent, so it's really important to have a grasp of that, but really, we can only control the things we do, so we have to do what we can to be the best we can. That means focusing on execution at this point and being clean."

Even though Hernandez and Howard have multiple experiences with competing in the Winter Cup, it's always an enjoyable time.

"It's always exciting to go out there," said Howard.