By Gabrielle Richards, GoPSUsports Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.- A captain is someone that leads by example. Someone who digs deep in order to do whatever they can to help the team. A captain puts the team on their back. Senior captain Laura Gebhart displayed remarkable leadership in Friday's game against No. 8 Northwestern with her poise and control.
The Big Ten Network televised game was slated to be one of the toughest for the Nittany Lions. The Wildcats have been successful and consistent over the past few years, making a true impact on Big Ten competition. This was the last home and regular-season matchup for the senior Nittany Lions and they weren't going to settle for anything less than a 'W'.
From the sound of the first whistle, spectators in the stands and those watching from home could tell this was going to be a 70-minute battle. The tenacity of both teams inside the 25-yard line was infectious as well as a great display of athleticism and sportsmanship. There was a lot on the line in this game: Northwestern had a Big Ten Title on the line and the Nittany Lions were focused on earning their right to play in the NCAA Tournament.
"Northwestern is a strong team, they are physical in a good way," head coach Charlene Morett-Curtiss said. "This was a display of great hockey."
First Half Passing Game
Penn State's passing game in the first half was textbook. Short, crisp, controlled passes inside the mid field helped them control the game early on. Precision passing and speed gave them several scoring opportunities in the first half. Penn State was able to fire off 10 shots on goal, compared to Northwestern's four; each team forced three corners. Senior keeper Kylie Licata was a brick house in goal, taking the initiative and making stellar saves.
"I thought we had a really great first half," Gebhart said. "Our passing game was great and we really took control. We were all feeling really positive after the first half."
The first score didn't come until the 21 minute mark of the first half. Gebhart fired off a shot from the hash mark outside of the Wildcats' circle and found Taylor Herold at the stroke mark. Herold tipped it in, giving the Nittany Lions a buffer for the next 14 minutes before half time.
With seven seconds left on the clock, Northwestern was awarded a corner. With zero seconds on the clock off a direct shot, the Wildcats tied the score before the half.
Now, it was anyone's game.
Second Half...a Defensive Battle
The second half of Friday's contest was controlled by the defense. Seniors Katie Breneman and Katie Andrews stepped up by switching gears into "attack defense" mode, where they were making plays at the 50-yard line.
"Katie B and Katie A really stepped up their physical game in the second half," coach Morett-Curtiss said. "That's the Big Ten Conference, its physical. I think we need to step up how physical we are."
Amanda Dinunzio recorded the only shot from inside the circle in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Despite it being the second half, it appeared as though the game had moved faster.
With a tied score and ample time on the clock, any team that took control of the passing game inside of the 25-yard lines would have the best opportunity to change the scoreboard.
Enter Laura Gebhart.
Putting The Team On Your Back
For anyone watching in the stands or at home, overtime seemed almost inevitable with a tied score and seven minutes left of regulation. Then, Gebhart picked off a pass at the 50-yard line.
You could tell she was going to find the back of the net; you could see her determination. As she weaved and bobbed through the Northwestern defense, the ball never left her stick. She didn't falter, nor lose focus as she approached the outline of the circle.
Gebhart ripped off a beautiful, controlled drive into the back corner of the cage. Her shot was so powerful, the sound of the ball hitting the back of the cage echoed as loud as the Nittany Lion roar on the sound system.
"That goal was beautiful; she put the team on her back on this one," coach Morett-Curtiss. "She is a determined competitor, that's all her."
Looking Ahead to the Big Ten Tournament
The Nittany Lions head to Ann Arbor, Mich. on Thursday to face off against Michigan State in their first round of tournament play. The last time they met was over a month ago in which Penn State won, 2-1.
Heading into the postseason, Penn State's poise and control are the key weapons that will help them in their pursuit of the Big Ten Tournament Championship. These weapons have evolved since their exhibition games early on in the season and they came full circle against Northwestern.
"Our possession in this game was phenomenal," Gebhart said. We have really been working on that. Our defense really stepped up today, too. We are in good shape."