By ANNA PITINGOLO, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State ended its Big Ten Tournament run with a 6-1 loss against No. 2 ranked and top-seeded Michigan in the semifinals Saturday evening.
Michigan jumped out to an early lead thanks to an RBI single from Kelsey Susalla, followed by a two-run homerun from Tera Blanco and a solo shot from Aidan Falk, all in the first inning. Despite the early hole, head coach Amanda Lehotak didn't feel like she had to be the one to motivate her team heading into the next frame.
"I didn't need to. This team is so seasoned that I didn't need to have any 'coach speak' with them," Lehotak said. "They knew exactly what they had to do. The way we run our system, the only thing we were focusing on was answering, so we were just trying to focus on the answer inning and move on to the next pitch."
The Nittany Lions weren't able to get a hit against the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Megan Betsa, who pitched the first 2.2 innings for Michigan. However, the Lions were able to get one earned run off of her in the third inning, when she walked four straight batters to score one.
Betsa had the bases loaded with catcher Alyssa VanDerveer up to bat, a scene reminiscent of Penn State's quarterfinal win when VanDerveer hit a grand slam in an almost identical situation.
With the fans loud and on their feet, VanDerveer almost played hero again, ripping a line drive down the sideline, but it fell just inches into foul territory. VanDerveer ultimately drew the walk to score Macy Jones from third base.
"We're in those situations so many times during practice, we really hammer situational awareness during practice," Lehotak said. "Coach [Joe] Guthrie's probably the best in the country, making sure our kids are used to that situation. I was just looking for a plus and looking to move 60 feet, and [VanDerveer's] the one you want in that situation, she's great, she loves that moment, so if we could do it again, I hope she's in that moment."
Lehotak pulled starting pitcher Marlaina Laubach before the start of the second inning in favor of freshman Maddie Seifert, who then finished out the game. Seifert earned the save in the quarterfinal game when she pitched 2.1 innings of relief for Laubach.
"It's everything [being able to get that production from a freshman]," Lehotak said. "Obviously, to be at the top of the country, you have to have great pitching, so for her to come in like that and consistently get better throughout the year is huge. I really think Seifert can be something special over her career, so hopefully that's just the starting block"
Taking Betsa out of the game early and keeping Big Ten Player of the Year Sierra Romero at bay were two big things Penn State was looking to accomplish, and they did.
"Our two goals were to take the Pitcher of the Year off the mound, which we did, and shut down the Player of the Year, which we did," Lehotak said. "I think both were 0-fors [Romero finished 0-for-4] so that was a goal. Those two, Betsa and Romero, are amazing athletes so for us to do that, it's a small victory and we feel really good about that."
Penn State is still hopeful that their season isn't over yet; Lehotak and her team are preparing for a possible spot in the postseason tournament.
"I'm secretly hoping it's not over yet, I still think we have a shot," Lehotak said. "I think we may be one of the last teams out, maybe the last teams in, depending what happens to our RPI and everything. I think we can make some noise in the NCAA if we got the chance, you never know, but I don't think anybody would want to play us right now with the way we're playing."
After the championship game on Saturday night, in which Minnesota defeated Michigan 4-3 in 10 innings, the All-Tournament team was announced. Shelby Miller and VanDerveer were both selected to the team for their efforts in both of Penn State's games.
If Penn State doesn't make the tournament, they still finished the season at 30-24 overall (14-9 Big Ten). It's the first 30-win season since 2011, when the team finished with 31 wins. The team also finished in the top four of the conference, marking just the third time in program history to do so.
After playing all season feeling as if they weren't respected in their own conference, Lehotak finally feels that her team was able to get the message across that they're a force to be reckoned with.
"I don't know how you don't respect us after this year and after how we played this weekend," Lehotak said. "I think that's for our peers in the Big Ten to decide, but coming in, we didn't feel respected at all, we felt we had something to prove all year. I feel that we've proved it, that we're here, to being the upper echelon in the Big Ten, that we can do it and we're very serious about it. By some handshakes I've received from coaches, I think they respect us now."