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Elizabeth Ball's Steady Presence Fueling Lions' Defensive Prowess

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11385851.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - There's no substitute for dependability, but it's a trait that's hard to come by. Cal Ripken Jr's unbreakable record was dubbed unbreakable simply because it is. The wear and tear of a year-round sport puts even the strongest men and women in a cycle of fatigue and injury. Every once in a while, you have to sit one out.

Well, not Cal Ripken Jr., and certainly not Elizabeth Ball.

"E-Ball" has been a consistent force in the middle ever since her arrival to State College. In her freshman season, the center back recorded 23 regular season starts and logged over 1,800 minutes on the pitch. It's tough enough for a freshman just to get acclimated to the collegiate game, let alone become a model of dependability for the entire defense.

This season, she's been even better. The true sophomore leads the Nittany Lions with 1,093 minutes played. Ball has started every game so far at center back, and that trend doesn't look like it will change any time soon.

"She's so dependable," said head coach Erica Walsh. "You know you're going to get an honest effort out of her every day. I think her ups and downs of her freshman year are starting to smooth out. We're starting to see way more consistency out of her and I think our team believes in her. We're also starting to see more leadership out of her which is exactly what we need."

Her newfound leadership role is a recently acquainted piece to her puzzle. Ball possesses the most experience along the back line despite it being only her second year. Her fellow center back Kaleigh Riehl and right back Ellie Jean, both freshmen, have looked to Ball all year in pressure situations.

Ball has been an unbreakable wall in the back all year, but she's undoubtedly in her best form at this point in the season. Last week, she was awarded Team of the Week honors by TopDrawerSoccer after a dominating performance against Northwestern.

"It's awesome," Ball said. "It was a big honor and I'm really excited. We've been playing really good defense and I couldn't have done it without my back line and Britt [Eckerstrom]."

The Nittany Lions, led by Ball in the middle, allowed a quiet total of three shots to the No. 24 Wildcats in a convincing 3-0 victory last Sunday. The shutout marked the fifth time this season PSU has held their opponent scoreless.

"Elizabeth had a great game," said Walsh. "That's the best I've seen her in a Penn State jersey on Sunday. She was confident both on the defense and the attack and she's having fun. She definitely raises the level of our team when she plays that well. We've been talking a lot about blue collar and she's setting the example in that area."

Penn State's recent defensive success has lowered its average goals allowed to 0.75. Somehow, the defense is in fact improving as the year rolls on. This can be credited to the ever-growing chemistry along the back line. Their close ties and strong friendships off the field are contributing to their solid play on the field.

"Being good friends and being such a close family is awesome because we already know what we're going to do," Ball said. "If Kaleigh's going to play me the ball I already know what's coming. It's good to have that connection because it would be terrible if we hated each other, so I think it really helps."

It's clearly evident on the field how in-synch the back line has been of late, and it all starts with Ball. She's become a great communicator in the middle of the pitch, directing traffic and aiding Eckerstrom during opponents' attacks. With Ball feeling as comfortable as ever leading the defense, this back line's confidence is sky high.

"They're gaining more and more confidence with every game," said Walsh. "We always talk about 'defender nation' and coming together as a group and really taking pride in a shutout."

"We definitely have a lot of confidence, but we're also trying to stay humble," Ball said. "It's really important that we come out every game hard and don't get complacent."

Ball's consistency and steady play has brought the young defense to a new level. Trust is imperative on defense, and that's what Ball provides in one of the most crucial positions on the pitch. If she can stay healthy, scoring on the Nittany Lions will continue to be easier said than done.

Statistics Don't Tell the Story in Rodriguez's Senior Season

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11366384.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Statistics in the timeless sport of soccer can be misleading at times. Sure, a great goal scorer is going to put up points game in and game out, and defenders find their own way into the stat sheet with tackles, blocks, and the occasional assist.

Midfielders, however, are rarely on complete attack or defense mode. The middle of the pitch is a barren region where statistics go to die, but it may well be the most important area on the field.

While stats overshadow what happens in the trenches, Penn State has been extremely efficient winning the ball near midfield and pushing it up the pitch before the opposition can get comfortable in PSU's half. The single most important aspect of any match is keeping possession and limiting the opponents' control of the ball, and that's what the Nittany Lions have done so well this season.

At the center of it all is senior Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez.

The nickname "Rocky" didn't come about until her official visit to Penn State in 2012. Goalie Britt Eckerstrom wrote "Rocky" on her nametag, essentially Americanizing her title, and it stuck ever since.

Raquel Rodriquez Cedeno
, all the way from San Jose, Costa Rica, has been the rock in the middle for Penn State her entire career. Before Penn State, Rodriguez was influenced heavily by her father, Sivianni, who played professionally in Costa Rica.

"It definitely impacted me in such a strong way because he brought the sport to my life when I was four years old," said Rodriguez. "That's how we discovered I had a passion for it, and I started nice and early so the more I played it the more I loved it. I just had so much passion about it from the beginning."

Rodriguez followed in his footsteps and made her father proud by leading her country to its first ever FIFA Women's World Cup appearance in 2015. If that wasn't enough of an accomplishment, the amateur scored Costa Rica's first ever goal in the FIFA Women's World Cup against Spain in its first match.

In each of her first three years in Happy Valley, Rodriguez managed at least 17 points, including a career-high seven goals in 2014. In 2015, her role is much different. Instead of pushing the attack as much as possible, Rodriguez is helping more on defense and letting PSU's stud forwards do their jobs up top. She has tallied three assists but is still searching for her first goal this year.

"She does everything well," said associate head coach Ann Cook. "Unfortunately, her stats don't reflect it. In so many ways she's the heart of our defending. She's the heart as we change the point of attack, as we get the ball off of our backs and get it forward. She's in a lot of ways what makes us go."

Part of her role modification has to do with the young defense the Nittany Lions have showcased this year. Two freshmen and two sophomores round out the back line, so veteran help is always needed, and Rodriguez is always there.

Rodriguez was named a captain for the 2015 campaign before the season began, and there were no complaints about that choice. Her leadership and poise on the pitch makes her the perfect fit, and her international experience has very much prepared her for whatever the college game throws at her.

"She's the type of person that is a really quiet leader," Cook said. "She leads mostly by example and by small conversations, and those small conversations are incredibly inspirational to her teammates to give them the bump that they need. Her response to being captain has been exactly what we expected. She's been so steady and so good and so dependable and everything we could ask for."

In her final season for the Blue and White, Rodriguez has her mind set on one thing: a national championship. Penn State has captured an unrivaled 16 Big Ten Championships in its great history, but not once have the Nittany Lions held up the national championship trophy.

"Right now, a national championship is the priority of the team and for sure it's my priority now," Rodriguez said. "It would be something historical for women's soccer at Penn State and that's definitely something I dream of. I'm a senior now and I'm part of the captains so that's our responsibility to lead us there."

"Rocky" Rodriguez couldn't care less if she doesn't score even one goal this season. For her, the most important thing is her team's success. This newfound mindset may have altered her numbers, but the Nittany Lions look stronger than ever because of it.

Rodriguez's selflessness can spur Penn State to great things in 2015, but don't be surprised if she puts one in the net at the most crucial time when the season's on the line. That's just what she does.

Eckerstrom's Leadership Powering Stout Defensive Effort in 2015

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10409712.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - They say defense wins championships. This has been true since the dawn of athletics and holds true in every sport imaginable. If a team can't stop its opponents from scoring, there's simply no hope.

Head coach Erica Walsh's Nittany Lions have proved this point over and over, capturing seven Big Ten titles in her first eight seasons on the sideline. The emphasis in each of these seasons: defense, defense, and more defense.

Spectacularly, Walsh might have her best defensive assemblage this year, and it starts between the posts.

Redshirt senior Britt Eckerstrom has been the rock in net for the past three years. In her third year as the starter, Eckerstrom is looking better than ever.

She has already notched four shutouts in the first nine games of 2015, and she won't be stopping at that number. Last year, she totaled eight. This year, she's on pace for the same number halfway through the season.

"Britt Eckerstrom has really come into her own," said Walsh. "She is the most important part of our shutouts up to this point, and bringing our young back line together. She's a massive piece of the puzzle for us right now, and most importantly she's our leader."

Eckerstrom takes the capital C on her jersey very seriously. Considering the inexperience of PSU's defensive unit, her job as field general is just as important as her role as goal stopper. Eckerstrom is noticeably vocal from kickoff to the final whistle, managing the defensive shifts and letting her teammates know where the opposition is at all times.

"Britt's a great goalkeeper," said freshman Ellie Jean. "Her talk on the field is always reassuring, and we can always count on her to make huge saves."

The back line may be young, but there's plenty of talent. Two freshmen, Jean and Kaleigh Riehl, have started in every game so far in their careers. Elizabeth Ball and Brittany Basinger, both sophomores, are the only starting defenders with prior collegiate experience.

"These guys have been lights out this year," Eckerstrom said. "They're super organized and are connecting really well. We're finally coming together as a group. Those shutouts have a little bit to do with me, but mostly it's my back line."

"Undoubtedly Britt is the glue of the back line," said Walsh. "She has them believing in themselves. She has them believing in their ability to hold off the other team. She rallies the group when they've put a ball in the back of the net, and there's an incredible amount of faith in her and her ability from the team."

Collectively, the defensive unit has allowed a mere 0.78 goals per game this season, but Eckerstrom carries a 0.56 average when she's in net. She's in reach to set a career-best in that category if she can get that number under 0.51.

Penn State's most impressive showing took place on Sept. 11 in Palo Alto. Following a loss to West Virginia, the Nittany Lions blanked the second-ranked Stanford, 2-0, in what could be pinned as the turning point for PSU defensively.

Before the Stanford win, the Blue and White were surrendering 1.4 goals per game. The win propelled the Nittany Lions to two more shutouts in a row in what became a streak of 383 straight shutout minutes before they conceded a goal.

Eckerstrom and the back line are starting to gel at the perfect time. Big Ten competition is freshly underway, and every remaining game on the schedule carries more weight than the last. The emergence of Jean and Riehl has the team dreaming of big things.

"Everyone has the same goal right now, to win a national championship," Eckerstrom said. "We have to take it one game at a time. As captain, I have to be loud for my defense, but there's tons of other voices on the field that we need for each game."

One blemish regarding the back line is finishing games as strong as it starts them. This season, Penn State has given up five of their seven goals allowed in the second half. The Nittany Lions' opponents are outshooting PSU 57-55 after halftime, whereas Penn State is outshooting the opposition 62-33 in the first half.

If they can work out the kinks in the second frame, this is a defensive unit has the potential to be consistently among the best in the nation. With every conference foe gunning to take down the Big Ten favorites, their play will have to elevate in the home stretch. Eckerstrom and company are battle-tested, and they should be able to handle whatever the conference throws at them.

Eckerstrom Continues to Impress Despite Narrow Setback

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10485346.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The fourth-ranked Penn State women's soccer team suffered its first Big Ten loss of the 2015 season on Sunday afternoon to the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The 1-0 setback brings the Nittany Lions to 6-2-1 on the year.

Although the Blue and White were kept off the scoreboard, there was no shortage of chances in the contest. Penn State took 11 shots in the game and totaled 11 corner kicks, but it was unable to sneak the ball past Minnesota keeper Tarah Hobbs.

A few of the most promising chances in the game came from long shots outside the box that were denied by the crossbar. In the 40th minute, senior captain Raquel Rodriguez ripped a shot from 22 yards out that tried to dip into the far corner, but it clipped the top of the bar and sailed over the net.

Later in the game, Sophomore Frannie Crouse produced a similar strike in the 66th minute. Crouse dribbled past a defender, cleared space, and fired a shot from the same distance that beat the goalie but not the crossbar.

"It's frustrating but that's college soccer," said head coach Erica Walsh. "I give Minnesota all the credit in the world. They came in and battled. They outmuscled us and beat us to the ball too often. We didn't make our own luck today and they did."

Sometimes, especially in hard-fought conference games, luck alone can determine the outcome of the game. On Sunday, Penn State's simply ran out.

In the 81st minute, for instance, sophomore Emily Ogle sent a corner kick into the box that found Rodriguez at point blank range. The All-Conference midfielder attempted to guide the ball to the near post with the keeper nowhere in sight, but the shot hit a Gopher defender guarding the post and bounced wide.

"I think it's all about making your own luck," Walsh said. "They absolutely did today and we didn't. Sure, we could've put one in the back of the net, but at the end of the day that team just wanted it more than us."

The unsurprising bright spot for PSU came from in between their goal posts. Britt Eckerstrom has been on a tear lately, and even though Minnesota snuck one by her, the keeper played a marvelous game.

Eckerstrom finished with five stops in the contest, none more impressive than a kick save to keep the deficit at one in the 68th minute. Minnesota's Sydney Squires received a pass and found herself alone against Eckerstrom with plenty of room, but Eckerstrom timed her charge perfectly and denied Squires.

"With 22 minutes left in the game, that's a potential game-changing moment," said Walsh. "You look back at those moments, and if we put one in the back of the net she's the one that changed the game for us, but unfortunately it didn't happen."

"Every Big Ten team comes in, especially at our house, with a lot of desire to put us away," said Eckerstrom. "Sunday games are always a special challenge but we have to be up for it."

Eckerstrom pitched a shutout in each of the previous three games, one of which against No. 2 Stanford. The redshirt senior owns a 0.78 goals allowed per game average in 2015.

"Britt Eckerstrom is, as far as I'm concerned, the best goalkeeper in the country right now," Walsh said. "Her leadership's been fantastic and this team believes in her and I believe we can go really far with her as our captain and our leader back there."

The Nittany Lions look to rebound on Friday against the Nebraska in Lincoln.

Balance, Depth Fuel Lions in Dominant Big Ten Opener

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11330414.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State women's soccer team had found itself in a multitude of close games in the past few weeks. On Thursday night, that wasn't the case.

After a huge weekend on the west coast, the Nittany Lions kept the momentum going with a resounding 4-0 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers in their Big Ten opener.

Penn State (6-1-1) has now won three straight matches, including a monumental victory over the second-ranked Stanford Cardinal last Friday. Goalie Britt Eckerstrom and the defensive unit has held their opponents scoreless in each of those games.

"Everybody in the stadium looks at that scoreboard and sees four, and our team needs to look at it and see zero," head coach Erica Walsh said. "We've had a couple of shutouts in a row now against really good teams. To put four balls in the back of the net is fantastic, but to continue to shut these good teams out is probably even more important."

The young back line didn't just make their presence felt on the defensive side of the ball. Freshman Ellie Jean and redshirt sophomore Brittany Basinger were constantly attacking from their outside positions, which placed added pressure on a shaky Wisconsin defense.

In the 28th minute, Jean made a strong move from the right sideline to blow by two defenders and sent a low cross to the middle of the box. Senior captain Mallory Weber was right there for the one-time finish to the corner of the net to open the scoring for the Blue and White. Weber's fifth goal of the season gives her the team lead.

"We're pretty instinctive, so I knew she was going to be there," Jean said. "That's pretty much her spot. We've scored like that before so I know she's there and trust her to get there."

"I think a big part of our game is getting those guys into the attack," said Walsh. "When they're not able to do so, things fail a little bit like they did against West Virginia. I think both Bassinger and Ellie Jean were a big part of our attack tonight."

The match progressed quietly throughout the first half and into the second, but the Badgers began to show signs of fatigue as the time went on. Luckily for the Nittany Lions, their deep bench created a mismatch for the tired back line of Wisconsin.

In the 56th minute, freshman Charlotte Williams entered the game for Frannie Crouse and immediately made her presence felt. Three minutes after stepping between the lines, Williams did her best Ellie Jean impression and found Megan Schafer in the middle of the box for a goal in a near identical play.

Shortly after, Marissa Sheva was called to action from the bench and got to work right away. In the 75th
 minute, Sheva made a run to the left half of the box, received a beautiful through ball from Raquel Rodriguez in between three defenders, and finished near-post to increase the lead to 3-0. It was the freshman's first goal of her career.

Six minutes later, the Nittany Lions put the finishing touches on. Williams found herself wide open on the right half after a defensive miscue and notched her second assist of the game with a perfect, high-arching cross that Crouse headed past the keeper with ease.

"Charlotte Williams gave us a huge bump," Walsh said. "All these guys off the bench I thought were good tonight. I keep talking about being 26 strong and I think we really saw it tonight."

"Depending on what team we play, we play a different format," said Williams. "I think it doesn't make a huge difference if you're starting or coming off the bench. If you're coming off the bench you're trying to change the game and impact it."

A total of 20 Penn State players saw the field Thursday night. The bench amassed five shots and two assists on the night, both courtesy of Williams.

"In my nine years, this is the deepest we've been," said Walsh. "To be honest, as a coaching staff we're still trying to figure out how to use them all and that's a great problem to have. Different days, different players are more effective against different opponents so we have to be smart enough to figure out how to use them."

The Nittany Lions will be back at Jeffery Field Sunday for a Big Ten showdown with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Penn State defeated Minnesota 1-0 in Minneapolis last year.

Nittany Lions' Top Recruiting Classes Proving Their Worth

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11308736.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In head coach Erica Walsh's first eight seasons at Penn State, the Blue and White has reached the NCAA Tournament each year and secured the Big Ten regular season title in all but one.

With Walsh at the helm, the Nittany Lions are in the conversation to win it all every single year.

It's one thing to build a solid foundation of players and make a run at a championship every so often, but few have had the consistent success Walsh has displayed during her tenure at PSU. The single most important factor in maintaining a powerhouse year in and year out is recruiting, and Walsh has proven she's among the best in the business.

Of course, she has some help. Assistant coach Tim Wassell, who deals primarily with the goalies, heads the strong recruiting team. This will mark his sixth season with the Nittany Lions.

"Tim is as good as I've ever seen," Walsh said. "He's played a huge role in the success of our recruiting. Since he joined our staff you've seen the improvement in our recruiting classes. I will give him 100% credit for what he's done in that area."

"You can't get better coaches than our staff," said freshman Kaleigh Riehl. "That was a big factor in choosing to come here. When I came, the girls were very welcoming and obviously I had watched them play many times and it was just a great team and a great environment."

In such a competitive day and age in college soccer, it's absolutely imperative to snag top recruits each and every year. One weak class can hinder a program, so offseason work is becoming more and more vital to success during the season.

In each of the previous two years, Walsh and associate head coach Ann Cook and Wassell have reeled in the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the country, according to TopDrawerSoccer. This year's class boasts nine talented and fearless players pulled from all over the globe.

"I think the personality of our current players is what sells this place," said Walsh. "We're able to pull kids from all over the country and all over the world. We're competing against the best schools right now, so we can't take any days off."

Another key factor in college recruitment is whether or not a recruit's game translates to the college game. Number 2-ranked classes don't mean anything until the players lace up their boots and prove what they can do on the field. Part of this transition depends on how well the coaches and upperclassmen prepare younger players for a faster and more physical game, and part of it is finding players who fit the Penn State mold.

"With all things being equal, the character piece is the number one component that we value and emphasize in our recruiting," Walsh said. "We believe that Penn State is the best place in the country to play college soccer and we have consistently shown that we are able to attract the top players from around the world due to the environment and experience that we are able to offer our student-athletes. When you spend five minutes with our current student-athletes it is easy to see the quality of character that they represent  and we look forward to sustaining this standard of excellence."

Last year's class entered Happy Valley with a bang. Frannie Crouse led the team in goals (10) en route to her earning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a freshman, while Megan Shafer tallied an impressive 17 points and six goals. Emily Ogle, who has started in every game of her young career, was awarded Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2014.

The highly touted 2015 class has already shown its No. 2 ranking is not a fluke either. Freshmen Ellie Jean and Kaleigh Riehl have started in every game so far in 2015. Riehl's 468 minutes played is the highest mark on the roster. She's been on the field for all but two minutes this season.

Five Penn State freshmen have played in every contest so far: Jean, Riehl, Charlotte Williams, Marissa Sheva, and Alina Ortega-Jurado from Wetzlar, Germany. The young group has totaled four points in the early stages of 2015.

"The freshmen have been amazing," said Ogle. "The biggest thing is keeping their composure in big spots and in big games and I think they've done that really well so far. That's going to help us big time once the postseason starts."

With both No. 2 classes now playing beside each other, the roster is littered with young, hungry talent. Underclassmen have accounted for seven out of the team's 10 goals this season. They also are responsible for 17 of the squad's 28 points.

"I think it's a pretty tall order against the quality of opponents that we're playing against, but I think these guys have stepped up" Walsh said. "We've put them in environments where they can sink or swim, and there have been moments when we definitely sink. Credit to them, they lift themselves back up but it's not easy."

The young guns face their toughest test this Friday when they take on the second-ranked Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto.

Crouse Looks to Replicate Freshman Season with Help from Old Friend

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11289892.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Superstitions have been a focal point of sports for decades. Baseball players turn their caps inside out during their last at-bat to spark a rally, while NBA stars have pregame rituals like the LeBron James chalk toss. There's nothing like the boost of confidence a player receives from their good luck charm.

For women's soccer standout Frannie Crouse, it's her lucky bow.

Crouse, a product of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was never fond of her first name. She abandoned Frances at an early age and picked up Fran and Crouse along the way.

"My parents started calling me Crouse when I was really young," said Crouse. "I think Frances sounds more like an old name, so I've been going by Crouse my whole life. I only get called Frances when my parents are mad at me."

In high school, Crouse and her bow teamed up to capture two consecutive state championships for Greensburg Catholic. They also notched three State Cup Championships and a third-place finish nationally in 2010 for Beadling Soccer Club. During her remarkable career, Crouse racked up more goals than any other player in Pennsylvania history.

Crouse gained plenty of attention from college coaches and scouts right away. Before choosing Penn State, she yielded a plethora of offers from the best in college soccer, including Big Ten rival Maryland.

"I loved everything about Penn State when I visited," Crouse said. "The coaches were awesome and I just knew it was the place for me. I think I definitely made the right choice."

Upon her arrival in Happy Valley, Crouse feared college rules and regulations would prohibit her from being able to wear the bow. Before the season opener against West Virginia last year, Crouse approached the coaching staff and asked if she could wear it on the field. She got the thumbs up from head coach Erica Walsh, but under one condition. The true freshman had to score in her first ever collegiate appearance or the bow was history.

The nerves generated from the magnitude of one's first college game are difficult to overcome themselves. Throw in the fact that West Virginia was ranked 12th in the nation, Jeffery Field was packed, and Crouse needed to score in limited minutes. Her chances seemed slim, but Crouse was unfazed.

With the bow tucked comfortably in her shorts, Crouse made her way onto Jeffrey Field for the first time. Twelve minutes later, she scored her first goal.

"After I scored, I immediately grabbed the bow and put it in my hair," said Crouse. "I didn't doubt for a second that I wasn't going to score. I needed to score. Looking back, it's my most memorable goal."

From then on, Crouse wore her bow throughout her freshman year. With a little help from the accessory, Crouse went on to lead the Nittany Lions in goals (10) in her first season at Penn State. Her stellar play earned her a spot on the All-Big Ten Second Team and All-Freshman Team.

"I honestly didn't expect to have such a good first year," Crouse said. "I got a ton of good experience in high school, but nothing compares to the college game. It's great to play with so many play makers that can set you up for easy goals."

Although somewhat surprised at her immediate success at the collegiate level, Crouse doesn't plan on slowing down this season. In the first four games of her sophomore year, she has already tallied two goals for the Blue and White in 242 minutes played.

Crouse's early play has the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions sitting at 3-0-1 heading into a tough matchup with a familiar foe, the Mountaineers of West Virginia.

Assuming Crouse and her bow stay on the same page this year, Penn State has aspirations of a big season. Crouse leads a fantastic group of underclassmen and former top recruits who have already shown they can play in this league, while Mallory Weber and Rocky Rodriguez head the proven veterans.

"A national championship is our ultimate goal," said Crouse. "But right now we're focused on getting better every day and trying to become the best team possible. We've all been working very hard in practice, and we're very confident with the team we have this year."

Like Calvin Cambridge and his sneakers in "Like Mike", with the bow properly arranged in her hair, sky is the limit for Frannie Crouse.

Schafer Shines for Lions Over the Weekend

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11283501.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The sixth-ranked Penn State women's soccer team is off to a familiar great start. After defeating Hofstra and Loyola Marymount handily at Jeffrey Field, the Nittany Lions battled a formidable Duke team to a 0-0 tie and impressed with a 4-2 win against Arkansas during weekend matches.

Megan Schafer was a huge part of the successful duo of games, scoring twice in the win over Arkansas and imposing her will on a stingy Duke defense that hasn't surrendered a goal yet this season. The sophomore was unable to net one Friday night, but her hustle and speed created multiple chances that just fell short for PSU.

As a team, the Nittany Lions amassed 21 total shots against the 21st-ranked Blue Devils, but goalie EJ Proctor was able to turn away a career-high 11 shots. Senior captain Mallory Weber hit the post early in the first half on a promising attack, and reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Emily Ogle struck the crossbar on a powerful free kick in the 62nd minute, but it wasn't meant to be.

"Great energy tonight and learned a ton about our group," said head coach Erica Walsh. "There were times when we were all over them and when they were back all over us I thought we did a good job of solving some problems. I was looking out to the field and seeing players solve problems which is big for us with such a young team."

Despite the blank goal line, Penn State's front line played a fantastic game. Schafer led the charge as every forward pressured the Duke back line whenever they touched the ball. The aggressive game plan forced a plethora of turnovers and breakaways, which is a strong positive to look back on.

"We were all pressing hard and committing numbers," said goalie Britt Eckerstrom. "That does leave us a little bit vulnerable to their attack, but that's just what it takes to waste a little bit more to hopefully get a goal but we didn't get one tonight."

Eckerstrom played a stellar game between the posts for Penn State, as did the entire defense. The keeper saw 14 shots in 110 minutes of play and was able to stop each one on target. The nationally recognized front line of Duke was stifled all night long by Eckerstrom's quickness and length.

"Our defense is strong," Eckerstrom said. "We work together really well and we always want to keep that clean sheet and do everything we can to give our team the best opportunity."

Sunday was a different story as Penn State came out firing on all cylinders. After a flurry of chances in the early goings, Raquel Rodriguez found Mallory Weber with a perfect ball over the defense and Weber skillfully sidestepped the keeper with one touch and finished with her left foot to put PSU on the board in the 27th minute. Her goal vaulted Weber to eighth place on the all-time PSU scoring list.

Six minutes later, Weber shared the love and found Frannie Crouse for a close range goal to put the Nittany Lions up 2-0. Crouse was one of 11 players that appeared off the bench for PSU.

"Feeling comfortable to put all 27 players into this game is massive, especially on a Sunday," said Walsh. "We talk all the time about how it's going to take all 27 to be successful and I thought today was a great step forward. We saw some really good performances out of some of these players who haven't had the chance."

In the second half, Schafer took it upon herself to finish off the Razorbacks in dazzling style. The forward masterfully guided a pinpoint header off of an Emily Ogle cross in the 49th minute to the back post and in with defenders draped all over her.

Later in the contest, Schafer received a through ball from Alina Ortega-Jurado with the defense out of place and beat the final defender en route to a powerful left-footed strike to seal the game for Penn State.

"Coach told me to go in with about 11 minutes left and she said finish it off," said Schafer. "It was an awesome pass from Erika and I had one focus and that was just goal."

Schafer now leads the team in the young season with three goals. She is on pace to shatter her total last year of six goals, and it doesn't look as if she'll be slowing down any time soon.

The Duke game on Friday saw an attendance of 4,207, the second highest total in the history of women's soccer at Jeffrey Field.

The Nittany Lions will be back in action on Sept. 4 in Morgantown, W.V., as they take on the West Virginia Mountaineers. PSU will be back at Jeffrey Field on Sept. 17 to welcome the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten opener.

Women's Soccer Christens 2015-16 Sports Season with Strong Start

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11269681.jpegUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Head coach Erica Walsh and the Nittany Lion women's soccer team could not have asked for a better setting to open the Penn State sports season than what they had on Friday night.

In front of a picturesque sunset in Happy Valley, more than 3,100 fans packed Jeffrey Field to cheer on the Nittany Lions to a 2-1 victory over Hofstra in the first contest of the fall.

A tremendous turnout of students, spearheaded by "Park Avenue Army" group, set the stage for an outstanding opening weekend for the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions.

"This was one of the most incredible environments we've had here at Jeffrey Field in my nine years," said head coach Erica Walsh. "In a lot of ways, those guys in the stands won the game for us by keeping our spirits up."

On the pitch, the Nittany Lions showed their versatility in two wins over the weekend. On Friday, senior Mallory Weber notched the first tally of the season on a great feed from freshman Ellie Jean in the 17th minute of action.

"It's always a huge emphasis to start fast," said Walsh.

The score remained 1-0 until Hofstra found the back of the net in the 65th minute of play. Nonetheless, the lead was short-lived and the Lions quickly answered. Emily Ogle deposited a perfectly placed shot into the back of the net on a free kick to give the Lions the lead for good in the 68th minute of play.

Ogle's goal was a thing of beauty off of the free kick, but the team's ability to take control so quickly after Hofstra equalized the match is what stood out on Friday night.

"So much of the character about this team was shown tonight," Walsh said. "Obviously you have to build that character over time, but we took a really positive first step in that area tonight. With a young team you're never sure what the response will be when you face a little adversity, but I was really proud of them."

Penn State showed its balance on Sunday afternoon during a 4-2 victory over Loyola Marymount. Four different players scored - Weber, Frannie Crouse, Charlotte Williams and Megan Schafer - and the Lions tallied three scores in a span of 11:06 during the second half.

The Lions accounted for 45 total shots in the opening two matches, including 19 on goal. Starting a season with two victories is a good step for a young, athletic squad.

"I think a lot of the things we did during preseason, I saw on the field," said Walsh. "It was a positive step forward."

The Nittany Lions return home on Friday for a matchup against Duke (8 p.m.). The Duke match is part of a big night on the University Park campus. The men's soccer team will kick off its season and a tripleheader on campus with a contest against San Francisco (5:30 p.m.). The two-time defending NCAA champion women's volleyball team begins its campaign at 7 p.m. against Buffalo in Rec Hall.

The fall sports season is off to an unblemished start thanks to two wins from the reigning Big Ten champion women's soccer squad.

Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: 2015 Season Preview - Women's Soccer

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The defending Big Ten champion Nittany Lion women's soccer team will have the honor of kicking off the 2015-16 Penn State athletic season on Friday (vs. Hofstra at 7:30 p.m.).

The Lions host Hofstra in the first regular season contest of the season. With a host of talent back from a squad that advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals for the 10th time in program history and a recruiting class rated No. 2 in the nation by TopDrawerSoccer, the Nittany Lions head into the season with a great deal of confidence.

GoPSUsports.com paid a visit to pre-season practice to talk with head coach Erica Walsh and a host of players to preview the 2015 season. Take a look.

Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony