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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.- Take a glance at a stat sheet for the Penn State men's soccer team these days and you may have to search a bit to find Eli Dennis' name.
Last year, it was easy. The 6-foot-2 Dennis spent nearly the entire season playing forward and finished second on the team in goals (four), third in points (10) and third in shots (29).
Nowadays, things are a little different. While Dennis is still a stalwart for the Nittany Lions, he now plays the less glamorous but equally important position of center back on defense.
How has he taken to the change? Exactly the way you'd expect from a guy that seems to always have a smile on his face.
"It's a different mindset and I like that I've taken on more of a responsibility role," Dennis said. "In the back I have to be a more mature player and it's easy to be that player when you're one of the oldest guys on the team."
A redshirt-senior, Dennis has played nearly everywhere on the field in a career that is now going on five years at two different schools.
As a freshman at American University in 2010, the Easton, Md. native played his high school position of center midfield and finished third on the Eagles in points.
After redshirting the next year as he transferred to Penn State, Dennis played center back in 2012 before a leg injury prematurely ended his season. That's the same spot he's at now after playing offense last year.
While his impact can no longer be measured in goals and assists, it's hard to watch a Nittany Lions game and not notice the tall, aggressive figure with a no. 4 on his back making play after play on the back line. Dennis has played all 90 minutes in both of Penn State's victories to start the season.
"I'm not a big stat pounder," Dennis said. "It's always nice to see your name somewhere for scoring goals but it's still nice to see your name for stopping goals as well."
This is the second straight year that Dennis has tailored his game to fit the needs of his team.
Last year, Warming needed an experienced player up front with the majority of Penn State's forwards being freshmen. This year, the return of Mikey Minutillo and the continued growth of sophomores Mark Wadid and Connor Maloney made Dennis' offensive burden less strenuous.
"He's essential to the team," head coach Bob Warming said. "Somebody had to go back there with Dani Marks going down and I can't think of anybody better than a high-character guy like Eli to jump in."
With the style that Penn State plays, Dennis' performance certainly is essential to their success. Last year, 16 of the Nittany Lions 21 games were decided by one goal or less, with the Blue and White going 10-4-2 in those contests.
Keeping that in mind, Dennis admitted that the pressure of playing defense does outweigh that of playing offense.
"The pressure to stop goals is tough," Dennis said. "If you don't stop a goal it looks really bad for you, and soccer is a one goal game."
Still, playing defense has given Dennis the chance to play alongside one of his best friends on the team, fellow senior and captain Owen Griffith.
Griffith has always enjoyed playing with Dennis, not just for his ability on the field but also his personality off of it.
"He's one of my best friends," Griffith said. "We can tell each other anything and it's all in good nature and great playing with him back there."
And then there's Dennis's other talent. A meteorology major, Dennis considers himself an expert at predicting storm patterns, something he showed off at practice on Tuesday when he correctly guessed how quickly a 15-minute downpour would stop, much to the amusement of his teammates and coach.
"I enjoy the weather," Dennis said with a smile. "I called this storm stopping within a couple minutes."
"He's a pretty good storm chaser," Griffith added with a laugh.
As long as he keeps chasing defenders away from the net, things should be fine for the Nittany Lions.