By ANNA PITINGOLO, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.- In front of a standing-room only crowd, the Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers 8-7 in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Big Ten Tournament on Friday night.
Sophomore catcher Alyssa VanDerveer got the Penn State offense rolling and sent the crowd into a frenzy when she put one over the right field fence with the bases loaded in the third inning.
The grand slam, VanDerveer's fourth of her career, dug the Nittany Lions (30-23, 14-9 Big Ten) out of an early 1-0 hole after a Mattie Fowler RBI put Nebraska up in the first inning.
"I was just looking for a pitch to hit into the outfield to even just score one run at that moment or even just a base hit up the middle," VanDerveer said. "I wasn't trying to do anything special but I happened to hit the ball hard and my teammates did a great job of getting on base before me, and I couldn't ask for anything else."
Despite preaching all season that she doesn't want her team to rely on the long ball, head coach Amanda Lehotak was happy with the way that VanDerveer handled herself in that situation.
"In that moment right there, we work on those situations all the time. I actually think our kids are very good in those situations," Lehotak said. "And that's what we reward in those moments, so Alyssa's very good in that situation that we work in all the time. I actually really trust all of our kids in that so she got the right pitch and she did something with it and it was a lot of fun."
After a Nebraska (33-19) pitching change, Shelby Miller hit a solo homerun on the first pitch she saw to extend the Penn State lead to 5-1
"I just saw a good pitch and I hit it," said Miller, who was hitting sixth in the batting order, rather than her usual two spot. "When another pitcher comes out we want to be ready to hit, kind of shut them down, so first pitch I'm going to go hit and I swung and it happened to go over the fence."
Miller's homerun came after she had a slow start to the game, although it didn't last long. The junior had an error in the first inning, but shook it off and finished the game with seven assists to first base.
"After that, I knew I had to just do what I do and not be nervous, it's just another game," Miller said.
Nebraska kept the Nittany Lions on their toes in the second half of the game, scoring three runs in both the fifth and sixth innings.
Penn State battled back in the bottom half of the fifth inning to score three runs of its own, thanks to a Tori Dubois double and an Erin Pond single, both coming with runners already on base.
Nebraska was able to cut the lead down to one in the sixth with a three-run homerun from Kiki Stokes, but that was it for the Cornhuskers. With runners in scoring position, Penn State centerfielder Lexi Knief made a diving catch to end the inning and prevent Nebraska from tying up the game.
But even with the lead narrowed down to one, the Penn State defense was still keeping it loose on the field, and they weren't hiding it. During a timeout, the infielders not included in the meeting at the mound could be seen dancing to the music playing over the speakers.
"It's who they are. When they're not having fun, then as a coach I know we're in big trouble," Lehotak said. "I think I have the best coaching staff in the country with Coach Si [Sarah Sigrest] and Coach [Joe] Guthrie and we believe strongly in our preparation, so our kids, to me, being willing to dance in a crucial moment during a timeout, I interpret that as a head coach that they know exactly what they need to do."
With the win, Penn State advances to their first conference tournament semifinal since 2002, and their third semifinal overall.
After the win, Coach Lehotak wasn't too worried about watching the next game against Indiana and Michigan in its entirety, the winner of which Penn State would be taking on in the semis [Michigan eventually won, 10-0]. She was ready to celebrate the win with her team at every Penn State student's favorite place: The Creamery.
"I kind of feel like we should get ice cream. I know a lot of teams when they come here and they play us they go get ice cream if they win and I love a victory cone so we're going to check out some ice cream and then we'll probably work our way back."
The Nittany Lions will take on the #1 seed Michigan in the second semifinal game on Saturday. First pitch is set for 3:30 p.m.