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By Anna Pitingolo, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions got their first Big Ten series win over the weekend when they beat the Indiana Hoosiers 2-1 on Sunday after splitting a doubleheader on Saturday. 

Junior Gianna Arrizurieta got the start in right field for game three and, as head coach Amanda Lehotak described it, was the "MVP of the year [with] how she played."

Arrizurieta was one of the lone bright spots on offense for much of the game in a largely defensive outing for the Nittany Lions, hammering out two doubles after entering the game batting .056.

"Gianna's one of those special athletes, she's a special person and the fact that her work ethic defines who she is, she works every day," Lehotak said. "She hasn't gotten a lot of opportunities and she's been chomping at the bit, and today she got the opportunity and is going to keep it for awhile, so I'm so happy for her and she's just proof that hard work pays off."

Her first double came in the bottom of the second with Toni Polk on first base. Polk rounded the bases to give Penn State the one run lead and Arrizurieta her first RBI of the season. Her second double came in the fifth inning when she ripped one down the left field sideline. 

Penn State has struggled throughout the season to plate runners who are in scoring position, but was successful in doing so against the Hoosiers all weekend.

"It's so refreshing [to do that]," Lehotak said. "We've been right there all year and we just haven't been able to bust through the door and hopefully these past two games are just the little momentum that we need."

 In between her two doubles, Arrizurieta had a strong defensive showing as well, robbing Indiana power hitter CaraMia Tsirigos of an extra base hit in the fourth inning with a diving catch in right-center field.

"Nothing was different [for me], we just came out and we wanted to show everyone, all our homes fans and families, how we play the game and how we're supposed to play the game," Arrizurieta said. "So we played hard, we played with heart, it was a full team effort and that's what we came out and did today."

In the bottom of the seventh, it was Arrizurieta who scored the walk-off run off a Sam Shanahan line drive to right field. But before the game winning play, it was heads up base running that got Arrizurieta to second base and into scoring position.

With Polk on first base, Arrizurieta went for the sacrifice bunt to advance her, but Indiana instead turned the play to second to get Polk out. As Polk was walking away, Arrizurieta noticed the shortstop look away, and she made her move, stealing second. 

"The shortstop, she had just made a play at second, she started peeling off the bag and the pitcher wasn't paying attention so I just took the base and that's how we practice so that's how we're going to play," Arrizurieta said. 

Arrizurieta, batting in the seven spot, wasn't the only player in the bottom half of the lineup to produce against the Hoosiers. Five of Penn State's six hits came from the six through nine hitters.

"My favorite part about today is, we always talk about it's a total team effort, and it was the bottom of our lineup that really allowed us to win," Lehotak said. "It just goes to show that Shelby Miller doesn't have to have all the pressure, KB [Kristina Brackpool] doesn't have to have all the pressure, you know anybody can step up at anytime, so I'm really proud of them." 

Penn State will look to carry this momentum into a weekend series at Michigan State. First pitch is set for 4 p.m. on Friday and then 1 p.m. starts on both Saturday and Sunday. 

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By Mike Gilbert, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After Friday's game against Indiana was rained out, the Nittany Lions played a doubleheader on Saturday.  After losing the first game 6-1, the Blue & White picked up its first win in conference play in the latter game, 3-2.  Here are some thoughts and takeaways after a full day of softball at Beard Field:

 

Game 1

 

Defense, Defense, Defense

 

The Lions did their part when in the field - the team committed no errors, and had a slew of nice plays.  It began in the first when Kristina Brackpool made a nice pick at first base.  She made another nice stretch to beat the runner to the bag, helping the team get out of a jam in the third frame.  A sliding grab by Sam Shanahan in right field saved at least one run in the seventh. 

 

Shelby Miller Stays Hot

 

Miller finished the contest 1-2 with a single, a walk and an RBI sacrifice fly.  The sac-fly finished off what would be a well-manufactured run by the Blue & White - Toni Polk doubled and stole third, and Miller did the rest, flying out to deep right center. 

 

Game 2

 

Power Surge

 

Tori Dubois put a charge into a ball in the fourth inning, hitting it over the centerfielder's head and driving in Rebecca Ziegler to put the Lions on top 1-0.  With two outs, Polk achieved one of the goals head coach Amanda Lehotak has been stressing all season: getting the clutch hit in a pressure situation. 

 

Small Ball Gets the Job Done

 

Still in the fourth inning, second baseman Mollie Sorenson wisely got caught in a rundown between first and second base, giving Dubois time to cross home.  That run gave Penn State a cushion with a 2-0 lead.

 

Twice as Nice

 

Penn State managed to turn two double plays in the game.  The first was a 6-4-3 double play fielded by shortstop Toni Polk.  The second was a line drive caught by Sorenson who fired to first to get the second out. 

 

Madey Smith Spins a Gem; Laubach Has Ice in Her Veins

 

The freshman Smith continued her dominance on the mound, striking out four and hurling a shutout until the seventh inning, when Indiana managed to plate two runs.  She exited with runners on second and third and no outs, and the team turned to senior leader Marlaina Laubach to save the game, up just one run.  After a fly out, a groundout and another fly out, Laubach was the hero, and preserved a Nittany Lion victory after stranding two runners in scoring position.     

 

Head coach Amanda Lehotak has complete faith in Marlaina.

 

"That's why we put her in that position," Lehotak said.  "She's been our ace for four years and she's been our attacker for four years"

 

Laubach is used to the high-pressure situations and knows how to manage her emotions.

 

"I'm coming into a situation that already has its own energy so I need to adapt myself to that particular moment," said Laubach. 

 

What's Next?

 

The rubber game of the three-game set against Indiana concludes Sunday starting at 1:00 p.m.  After wrapping up the first home series of the season, Penn State heads to East Lansing to take on Michigan State for a weekend series.  Friday's game begins at 4 p.m., while first pitch for Saturday and Sunday's games are set for 1 p.m.  

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By Mike Gilbert, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After what seemed like an eternity on the road, the Penn State softball squad finally returns to Beard Field this weekend.  The team played its first 30 games away from the friendly confines of State College, but now gets a chance to open up their home turf against Indiana beginning on Friday. 

 

"We're so excited and at the same time, I worry about us being so excited that by the fifth inning, our adrenaline crashes.  We've done that in the past, but to be at home in front of our fans, it's going to be amazing," said head coach Amanda Lehotak.

 

The Lions have only been the "home team" eight times this season, meaning even though they have been playing away from Beard Field, they have started the game on defense.  According to Lehotak, there is a big difference in strategy and feel of the game when opening up on defense instead of at bat. 

 

"Statistically, if you're the home team, the winning percentage is much higher.  When you're the visitor, you feel like the underdog.  If you're the home team, I feel like you can ease into it a little bit.  You can see how they're going to throw you and how they are going to attack you," said Lehotak.

 

There is a mental part of the game associated with being the home team as well. 

 

"It's a completely different mindset and kind of out of our comfort zone since we've had so many games where we're not in that position.  But, it's a weekend where we can take care of business," added Lehotak. 

 

The keys to the weekend series against the Indiana Hoosiers are the same as all season, according to Lehotak.  Her team must rely on the starting pitching relaxing and finding a groove, and the defense needs to limit runs being scored in bunches.  Of course, timely hitting is a key factor, something the team is still working on.

 

The players themselves can't wait for Friday to arrive.

 

"I'm very excited.  Everybody always talks about how it's the best part playing at home, and I'm just very excited," said freshman bright spot Madey Smith. 

 

The excitement coming home is even higher due to the stakes, as the game with the Hoosiers will open home Big Ten play Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at 6pm, 3pm and 1pm, respectively.  The Nittany Lions come into the conference home opener at 12-18 on the year, while Indiana is 16-16. 

 

Fairly evenly matched with their Big Ten opponent, the Nittany Lions are primed to make a splash this week, and can do that in front of an army of supporters.  

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By Anna Pitingolo, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - When Madey Smith stepped foot on campus in the fall, she had no idea what she was about to be thrown into. A four-year letter winner at Warren Hills Regional High School in New Jersey, Smith came in highly touted but struggled in offseason workouts with the team.

"Coming in the fall, I struggled with our workouts, our conditioning, and everything so I think I've had a lot of mental progress from the fall to now," Smith said. "It's definitely helped me from the fall when I was struggling to now which I can get past and work through easier situations especially in the game or something like that."

After initially being surprised by Smith's struggles in August, head coach Amanda Lehotak has seen Smith make big strides since then. 

"Smith came in and it's not a secret that she was not ready in the fall, we were kind of like 'what happened to you over the summer?'" Lehotak said. "But I give that kid 100% credit because she zoned it in and she has worked her tail off."

That perseverance is exactly why Lehotak felt ready to give Smith her first starting nod this past weekend in the George Washington Capital Classic. Smith's first career start also turned in to her first complete game, in which she had a career-high eight strikeouts and only gave up three hits. 

"She has kind of been asking for the ball like and we were like 'you're not ready in practice, you need to do this, this and this' and every time we would give her a checklist she would hit it," Lehotak said. "So it was finally our time to be like 'okay, we have no more excuses on the coaching end to not give it to you.'"

Lehotak and company were pleasantly surprised with Smith's outing against GW, and so was Smith. She's been learning under veteran pitchers Marley Laubach and Maddie Seifert and has picked up one very important lesson from them: always compete.

"They've taught me to compete every inning and to never give up and just keep working as hard as you can because you're going to get your opportunity and that's exactly what happened [for me]," Smith said. 

Now that the opportunity has presented itself to Smith, it's her top priority to hold on to it, something that Lehotak preaches to her players.

"We always talk about in life when you get an opportunity you better keep it and she kept it," Lehotak said. "As of right now she's arguably our ace going into the weekend, so it'll be interesting to see how she handles Michigan at Michigan." 

Lehotak called Smith her hardest thrower on staff and, given that she's a freshman, when Smith is called upon in a game, she isn't overthinking or overanalyzing the moment­--it's just "get on the mound and compete."

"The greatest thing about freshmen is they can kind of bring the sense of being fearless because they don't know any better," Lehotak said. "And then she's very different because she's our hardest thrower so the ball kind of gets on you quickly. She has probably the best rise ball on staff and right now her curve ball is pretty amazing." 

Smith ended up at Penn State at her high school coach's insistence when the recruiting process began. During her first visit, she immediately thought it was "awesome," but didn't want to commit right away, especially since the coaches hadn't seen her play yet.

"As the fall went on, the coaches came and saw me so then I went and revisited Penn State to see if it was actually going to be my school," Smith said. "I went back and fell in love with it and I knew I was going to get a great education and I wanted to help the softball program, so it was a perfect fit."

As the Nittany Lions start the conference portion of the season this weekend in Ann Arbor, Smith is keeping a positive outlook moving forward. With assistant coach Sarah Sigrest, Laubach, and Seifert there to help her along the way, Smith is ready to go in the Big Ten.

"I'm just trying to keep calm going into the games and just having a good mindset and knowing that I can do it and knowing that my team has my back and just being confident always," Smith said. 

Penn State will play three games against the No. 19 Wolverines this weekend with the first pitch of game one set for Friday at 4 p.m.

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By Mike Gilbert, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Playing a college sport on the opposite side of the country with no family close by can be difficult for a student-athlete.  But for one Nittany Lion, the opportunity to return home and receive a hero's welcome last week allowed her journey to come full circle. 

 

Sam Shanahan is a native of Seattle, Washington, where the Penn State softball team played in the Husky Classic last Friday.  With a large softball alumni base in Washington, the alumni committee, including president of the Seattle alumni chapter Chrysty Laske, and vice president Elizabeth King, greeted the team with a warm welcome to say the least.  The girls had personalized signs waiting for them upon their arrival, and were able to enjoy plenty of experiences that the area had to offer during their visit.  In addition, the alumni presented the team with a sizeable donation. 

 

"It was the coolest experience ever.  It had been my dream ever since I committed to Penn State to play against the University of Washington just because I live less than a mile from the stadium.  So, being there in front of my family and friends was a dream come true," said Shanahan. 

 

The team didn't just play softball in Seattle; the trip was about much more.  On the first off-day, the squad headed on a duck tour of the Emerald City with alumni, followed by a family dinner at the Shanahan's house.

 

On the second off day, the girls had a golden opportunity:  a day in the famed space needle, followed by an alumni networking meet-and-greet event with alums working and living in the area.  The trip was not only designed to make the team better off the field, it also utilized Penn State's massive reach to try and help the team with their future careers as well. 

 

"[The Seattle chapter] made us feel at home.  They gave us an evening in the space needle... It was pretty phenomenal to have that love and support... It's something the girls will never forget," said head coach Amanda Lehotak. 

 

As for the games themselves, there was such a home-field advantage for the Blue & White that it felt like they were playing at Beard Field, not 2,500 plus miles away. 

 

"It was probably the first time all season that we felt like we had a home crowd because so many of the Penn Staters came out," said Lehotak. 

 

As for Shanahan, she enjoyed playing in front of familiar faces.

 

"At first, I was a little nervous.  My brother has never seen me play before so I'd better do well!  But once the game actually started, it was very calm and I was just very excited to be able to play."

 

Shanahan's mother and grandparents have seen her play at Penn State, but the rest of her family has not seen her play in person, until this past week.

 

"It's a far trip [to State College] and it's expensive," Shanahan said.  "Plus, all of my brothers and sisters are either in college or working, so it's very hard for them to get time off.  But to have them all there was very nice."

 

The Lions split their two games in the tournament, beating South Dakota but falling to the host Huskies.  Looking ahead, the Nittany Lions get set to take part in the George Washington Capital Classic this weekend, with two games apiece against both Niagara and George Washington. 

 

Win or lose, Shanahan and her teammates will be riding high after a productive trip both on the field and off.  

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By Anna Pitingolo, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Jess Cummings has been surrounded by softball her entire life. She is the middle child in a house of all girls, all of who played the sport growing up. Now in her junior year at Penn State, she's primed to have a breakout season under head coach Amanda Lehotak. 

"I think that's part of the reason why I love [the sport] so much. I always wanted to be just like my older sister [Danielle] and she was a pitcher so that's why I would say I pitch," Cummings said. "And my younger sister [Micaela] is a catcher and she's my best friend in the entire world and I think part of that has to do with softball. I'd throw to her every day, that's how we would spend time together so my sisters are my two best friends and it's because of softball."

Danielle and Micaela are also Division I softball players, with Danielle having played at Mount Saint Mary's from 2011-2015 and Micaela currently playing in her freshman season at Delaware State. 

Following in Danielle's footsteps as a pitcher has taught Cummings a lot. Both of them have battled through injury in their college career, and Cummings has learned about pushing through adversity. Even when not being able to contribute on the mound, Cummings made sure that she can be the best teammate possible, another thing she learned from her big sister. 

"She had a tough road too with some injuries so [I learned about] perseverance," Cummings said. "She was always a good teammate and had everyone's back and everyone wanted to be on a team with her whether she was their star pitcher or not and I think that has really inspired me to be the teammate that I've had to be through injury and everything like that." 

Cummings had a career outing against Cleveland State in last weekend's Chanticleer Showdown. She had a career-high nine strikeouts in a 9-0 win over the Vikings. Lehotak was thrilled to finally see Cumming reach her potential on the mound. 

"It was great to see her. She battled with injuries all of last year, so to see her healthy on the mound, ready to go, was exactly what we needed," Lehotak said. "Jess had a great game and really that's just her building on what she's done her freshman and sophomore years. It's just been so hit and miss because of her injury so I know she needed that."

Cummings currently has a 1.91 ERA in three appearances this season, including two starts. With the strong pitching staff that Penn State boasts this year, Cummings knows that it's always a competition to get to the mound.

"Obviously we all want to throw and everyone's working their butt off to throw but we're making each other better and just really having a blast together," Cummings said. "I don't think there's a lot of schools in the country that have that, where you can have good pitchers who still want the best for each other and I think that we definitely do right now and that's what is making us successful."

The Nittany Lions will travel across the country for the next week as they head to Colorado for the Colorado State Classic this weekend before facing Seattle at home in Washington.

 

12463569.jpegBy Mike Gilbert, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.- Last season, the softball program boasted a talented and experienced outfield, featuring seniors Lexi Knief, Erin Pond and Macy Jones.  This season, redshirt sophomore Rebecca Ziegler, in the midst of a four-game hitting streak, is picking up some of the slack.

Having sat out her freshman season due to injury, and backing up centerfielder Lexi Knief a year ago, head coach Amanda Lehotak knew Ziegler would be ready to go this year. 

"She's been outstanding for us.  I thought opening weekend, it didn't really show in the stat line, but she had a lot of quality at-bats.  So this weekend, to see them kind of finally fall for her, I was really pleased...Having that spark in the leadoff spot is exactly what we needed from her," said Lehotak. 

When you first meet Ziegler, you can see her passion for the game.  Lehotak sees it too.

"Ziegler just loves the game.  When you talk to her, she's just passionate about softball, baseball," Lehotak said.  "She can tell you baseball stats of who's doing what, so I think its just a perfect storm in the fact that she's finally physically healthy, and I think she's just having a really good time playing the game right now."

Where did Ziegler develop her love of the game of softball?  Part of that has to do with her family.  Her older brother, C.J., was a first baseman at the University of Arizona before playing professionally in the minor leagues.  Seeing him perform well on the diamond was where Ziegler got her fire. 

"Growing up around a baseball field, seeing him dominate on the field, really drove me to want to be as good as him," she said.  "He made me love this game, so watching him be such a force at the plate and on the field, that's who I aspired to be."

Now, playing for a Nittany Lion team heating up early on in the season, Ziegler can leave it all on the field manning the starting center field position.  Her effort can be seen during the week in practice behind the scenes and in the cage.

"As long as I swing as hard as I can in the cages, it translates onto the field...I just try to improve every single at bat and try and make it better than the last time," said Ziegler.

Ziegler also has bought into the team philosophy this season.

"This year's theme is staying within the tribe, being a tribe, so as long as we do that, we'll be ok," she said.

Ziegler and her teammates will be traveling to Conway, South Carolina to take part in the Chanticleer Showdown this weekend.  The squad will face off with Coastal Carolina, Campbell, Cleveland State and Morehead State, and Lehotak knows what needs to be done to continue the team's four-game win streak.

"Our defense needs to sustain and we need to keep doing a good job... Pitchers, were looking for them to attack," she said.  "There were a couple of situational areas this past weekend where we kind of got lucky, so making sure we fix that, and, offensively we have to do a better job of making adjustments earlier."

With that in mind, Ziegler and the Lions are trending upwards in the early stages of the season, especially in the eyes of Lehotak.

"The mixture of having our youth be really mature and our seniors having the 'been there, done that' mentality, I think it's been the perfect blend."

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By Anna Pitingolo, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State is back on the road this weekend, this time in Atlanta where they'll take on Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in the second annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

 

Teams are picked for the tournament based on the final standings from two seasons ago. The top eight teams in each conference are invited to compete, so after missing out on the tournament last year, Penn State is excited to use this as an opportunity to prove themselves in the Big Ten.

 

"It's the first step to be relevant in the Big Ten," said head coach Amanda Lehotak. "The qualifications go on RPI and in my first year, when they scheduled two years out, we did not qualify. But to know we're in the tournament for next year and even be a higher seed in the tournament based on last year, it's very exciting and it does show that we are now relevant."

 

On top of proving themselves in the conference, Lehotak is excited for the opportunity for her team to represent the Big Ten. And with postseason implications on the line, she's looking forward to the matchups going on around the conference.

 

"This is the first time we've qualified for it so that's really exciting for us. And it's a big weekend, it's a weekend that can separate the Big Ten from the ACC on Selection Show Sunday so really we just want to represent well and play good softball," Lehotak said.

 

Senior Shelby Miller, playing in this tournament for her first and only time, added to that sentiment, and has high hopes for Penn State.

 

"It's an honor to compete in this tournament because we get to go out and represent the Big Ten," Miller said. "I'm hoping, and I know, that we will do a good job representing the conference."

 

In last year's inaugural Challenge, the Big Ten finished with a 20-12 record. And for Penn State, after topping then-No. 4 LSU during opening weekend, Miller knows that in order to keep that momentum heading into the Challenge the team has to make sure their game is on point.

 

"In the LSU game, everything was on," Miller said. "The pitching was on, the hitting was on and our defense was on. It's just a matter of, in every game, having at least two of the three being on, because we can't just have defense or we can't just have pitching. We need to have at least two of the three to win."

 

Despite having a young team, Lehotak feels that her players have shown maturity so far, and that's helping them to fix mistakes from week one as they move forward.

 

"We really want to continue with the process. We had our ups and downs, and we know where we're weak," Lehotak said. "The team has high maturity in the sense that we don't have to convince them where we're strong and where we're weak, which is nice, we haven't had that. So for them to come back this week and really prepare for the ACC schools, I like our preparation and I like our mindset."

 

Penn State's first game of the tournament is on Friday versus Georgia Tech. First pitch is set for 3 p.m.

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By ANNA PITINGOLO, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State softball team is under a week from kicking off the 2017 season. After a successful season last year, the Nittany Lions are ready to get back on the diamond and pick up where they left off.

Season Starts on the Road
Opening Weekend will be in Baton Rouge, Louisiana this weekend when the Nittany Lions take on McNeese State, LSU and Oklahoma State in the LSU Tournament. After that, the team will continue to play in tournaments down south until the weather warms up in Happy Valley. 

While there are challenges of playing so many games on the road, the team isn't worried about it affecting them in any way.

"It's kind of fun actually, playing at somebody else's field is more like a challenge," senior Shelby Miller said. "You're not in your comfort zone and we do drills everyday [at practice] that make us uncomfortable so we're very used to being uncomfortable. Plus it's fun to see all the other cultures of the other schools and you gain respect for what they do." 

Sophomore Tori Dubois added that just because the team is away from Beard Field it doesn't mean they're not capable of playing their best game. 

"I think that being on the road for the first five weeks, everyone's like 'oh, you're on the road, the wear and tear of the travel and everything,' but we take that as a challenge," Dubois said. "Why can't we go and perform in their place and then we can prove ourselves there. We don't have to be home to win, we can go on the road and show everyone what we can do." 

Building off Last Season's Momentum
Penn State finished last season with a 30-24 (14-9 Big Ten) record, its first 30-win season since 2011, when that team finished with 31 wins. The team also finished in the top four in the Big Ten for the third time in program history.

Despite the impressive season, the team missed out on the NCAA Tournament and head coach Amanda Lehotak and company have only used that as motivation for this year. 

"It's absolutely a motivating factor. We've always talked about that we need to gain respect in the Big Ten first before we can gain it nationally," Lehotak said. "We felt we did that, finishing fourth in the Big Ten regular season, beating Nebraska [in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals] and finally starting slowly to chip away at Michigan [in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals], which was a big step for our program. So in terms of are we motivated? Absolutely." 

Competing with a Young Team
Lehotak lost seven seniors to graduation after last season, and replacing them will be no easy task. Macy Jones and Lexi Knief hit .398 and .356, respectively, and held down the outfield for the Nittany Lions.

Pair those losses with the transfer of catcher Alyssa VanDerveer, who hit .362, and Lehotak is going to need someone to fill in their shoes in the batter's box.

"All the seniors [last year], their senior year was when they really excelled, but the good thing is Shelby [Miller] returns and Tori [Dubois] was coming on strong at the end of the year so we expect our youth to step up," Lehotak said. "If they hit like they've been hitting in practice, we could potentially be better 1-9 than we've been, but it is hard to replace a Macy Jones and a Lexi Knief."

Despite having a young team, Lehotak is optimistic that her team's new look will translate into a more complete game on the field. 

"We're going to have a completely new look on the field. I think it's an exciting look, I think it's a more athletic look and I think we're deeper 1-20 than I think we've been since I've been here," Lehotak said.

Competitive Practices Driving Team Forward
Looking to improve upon last season, the coaching staff has been keeping the players on their toes each practice. Instead of sticking with a normal routine, the players are getting curveballs thrown at them each time they arrive for practice.

"Our coaches have really been switching it up every single day, giving us something new that we've never seen before," Miller said. "It's been really refreshing as a player because you go from doing the same thing a lot of the time with the same people and now it's completely different, you're with a new group, new girls, you've got so many new drills." 

Lehotak echoed the sentiment, adding that by getting into the rut of a routine, the team wasn't helping itself reach that next level of success.

"We talk about how we've been knocking on that door but we haven't really done anything yet, so the challenge this year, coaching staff included, is that we're going out of our comfort zone in every area," Lehotak said. "I love routine, but that also wasn't helping us get to the next stage so it's been all about that and it's been all about being uncomfortable." 

Playing Around a Complete Pitching Staff
At this point in time, Lehotak is most confident in her pitching staff, which has grown in the offseason, both in size and in talent.

"I think our pitching staff is probably the strongest part of our team right now in terms of complete consistency," Lehotak said. "Marlaina Laubach obviously has been our ace for four years and Maddie Seifert finished on a great year, so they're the one- and two-punch. The greatest thing about them is they set each other up really well."

After using a rotation of mainly Laubach and Seifert last year, Lehotak plans to incorporate other pitchers into the lineup to keep everyone fresh.

"You're going to see some kids that you didn't see much of last year. Maddie Shaffer has emerged as one of the most competitive pitchers on the staff in regards to what she can do off-speed. Madey Smith, a freshman, she gives a completely different look. And then Jess Cummings who has had some injuries for the past two years, is finally healthy, and she really changes the dynamic of our staff in a great way. I'm very excited about our entire pitching staff, which is really fun as a coach to say."

The Nittany Lions take the field for the first time this season on Friday at 1:30 p.m. against McNeese State.

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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."

@GOPSUSPORTS

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