By Mike Gilbert, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State is getting ready to kick off the season down in Florida, where the team will take part in their first of the season's three Florida tournaments this coming weekend.
The Kick-Off Classic in Boca Raton, Fla. will begin Friday, when the Lions take on Wright State and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) in a doubleheader. SIUE and Tulsa will take the diamond against the Blue and White on Saturday, and the team will play Florida Atlantic on Sunday before heading back to State College. All of these teams have RPIs of 75 or lower.
"I try to create a good balance. I really try to never play a team about 75 in the RPI," said head coach Amanda Lehotak on the upcoming schedule.
Lehotak feels the same way when scheduling preseason tournaments for her team.
"When you go to tournaments, you're kind of stuck with who else is in the tournament but typically I look for tournaments that have the same philosophy that we do," Lehotak said. "We don't want anyone higher than 75 just because a bad loss is a lot more killer than a good loss, and the fact that we have to be tough and we have to know what its like to grind day in and day out going into the Big Ten."
At the end of last season, FAU was 35th in RPI ranking, while SIUE was 49th and Tulsa came in at 73rd, aligning with coach's philosophy.
The players also are excited to play outside and against some top competition. After only practicing outside three times so far this season, which Lehotak jokingly called "a new record," it will be a nice change of pace for the team.
"The warm weather obviously is going to be a good factor for the team going in and we're all just really excited to go in and actually play someone besides ourselves," said senior Macy Jones. "Our preseason is really going to get us ready for the Big Ten because it's a lot of mid-majors that are at the top of their conference and they know how to win, so being able to play them and compete against them is really going to prepare us."
A key for Lehotak is having a strong February to not only kick off the season right, but to also put the team in position to make the postseason.
"It puts us in go-mode right away. We don't have the reputation and have yet to prove the fact that those teams should be afraid of us," she said. "I like the fact that it tests us right away and gives us good competition to see where we're really at. To go to the postseason, you have to have a decent to good February, so I like the fact that were being tested."
There is a familiarity factor for the Nittany Lions with the upcoming tournament, as they went 3-2 in last year's Kick-Off Classic. Lehotak said the umpires usually have a wide strike zone, so the pitchers are preparing for the tournament using that knowledge. She also says she is excited to see what her new freshman hurlers can do on the mound.
"Offensively and defensively I feel like we know exactly what were going to get. The thing I'm most excited for is our pitching staff," she said. "I think coach [Sarah] Sigrest has done a fantastic job, and our pitch calling seems much better, so I'm excited to see our returners under her guidance what they can do. I'm really excited to see the two freshman [Madison Seifert and Madison Shaffer] take the mound and see if they're ready to leave their mark on the program."
Going from closed gym to open field is not without its challenges. It can be difficult to judge a ground ball on turf, and try and field that same ground ball on a dirt and grass infield.
"One of the biggest challenges as an infielder is going from turf to grass," Lehotak added. "On turf you get all the perfect hops and you know exactly where the ball is going. When you go to different outdoor fields the dirt is always different, the conditions are different and on top of that you have the sun. I think those are the major challenge but we are excited to get down to above freezing temperatures."
Despite the challenge, the team is ready to roll and seemed very excited at practice on Wednesday to get the season rolling. After the Kick-Off Classic, Penn State will go back down to Florida and play in the Jacksonville Tournament starting February 19th, where they will take on Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.