UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Playing its first season in the Big Ten Conference, the Penn State women's lacrosse team knew this year would be filled with challenges and triumphs. The team battled hard, winning 16 games for the first time since 1989 and making the NCAA Quarterfinals for the third time in four years.
Nevertheless, the team's greatest feat came in the form of a first for the program and its conference. Despite the competition, the Nittany Lions were crowned the first-ever Big Ten Champions. With all of these accomplishments, it is clear that this program is destined to excel.
"It was a really fun year," said head coach Missy Doherty. "I think from day one it was a really good energy on the team. When we started, we had to shift a couple players due to injury and asked a lot of some young players. I think they really did their job stepping up, and thankfully we had some really great wins this year. We're Big Ten Champs, and I certainly think we have a lot to be proud of."
The growth and dominance of the team's defense is one aspect Doherty and the rest of the Nittany Lions are especially proud of because at the start of the season, it was not a strong point. Injuries required a lot of shuffling, and when all was said and done the team's core defenders were made up of a number of former attackers.
Sophomore Natalie Schmitt shifted to defense, as did Abby Smucker. The two really bolstered the Lions on the back end and had to make numerous adjustments as they gained a greater understanding for the position throughout the season.
Smucker, who seemed to captain the young defense, really stood out as her performances solidified the team. She was even named the Big Ten Tournament MVP for her play, showing just how hard she and the rest of the defense worked to improve.
This strong play from the D, in addition to the team's balance offense, played a key role in the team's success, especially in the newly formed Big Ten Conference.
"I think that we're really a tough conference, and I think we're continuing to grow with all the exposure that we get through the Big Ten Network," said Doherty. "It just really feels like our sport is taking off across the country, which is awesome. So, we had some great exposure. I thought the tournament was exciting, and our season finale against Maryland was really exciting. I think everyone can see that we're a really competitive conference."
With teams like Northwestern and Maryland as conference rivals, winning the Big Ten Tournament was all the more special for the Nittany Lions. Penn State had to work hard and play its best games possible to come out on top, and that is exactly what it did.
The Nittany Lions will forever be the first Big Ten Champions, and that is an accomplishment that can never be taken away from them.
"I would probably say winning the Big Ten Tournament," said Doherty of the team's biggest accomplishment in the 2015 season. "It was the first year for our conference and we went in with really great teams. We beat Northwestern twice, which was a really amazing feat given their history and how good they are. I think that was a big step for us, and then getting a tough draw for NCAAs and making it through the Virginia weekend was just another really good weekend for us."
These big wins and strong play would not have been possible without the dominant Nittany Lion offense. Captain Maggie McCormick led the way with 67 points, becoming Penn State's all-time leader in assists with 137 in her four-year career. She registered 43 this season alone.
McCormick was not the team's only offensive weapon, as it had nine players reach at least 10 goals. Tatum Coffey, Steph Lazo and Madison Cyr each had 43, 41 and 38 goals respectively. When one player was shut down, Penn State always had another attacker ready.
The Lions were dangerous all season long. They played a number of close games, were ranked nationally on a consistent basis and were the first Big Ten Champions. The team will lose nine seniors next year but returns a majority of its starters. The future of Penn State lacrosse is as bright as ever.
"I think after this year specifically, we've begun to establish ourselves as a top team nationally," said Doherty. "I think sometimes it's hard to keep pushing open doors and keep turning corners, but I think this year, especially with our Big Ten win and our wins over some really great teams, really helped establish our program as a team that's going to compete for those top spots. The girls know the energy we put into this season and how hard we worked. They're ready to do that again."