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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.- Oftentimes, the non-conference portion of a team's schedule allows some room for growth. It's early in the season, and most teams are still trying to figure out their lines and rotations before they get into the meat of their schedule.
That is not the case for the Penn State women's hockey team, who opens up on the road at No. 5 Minnesota Duluth this weekend. The Nittany Lions have never been a team to shy away from a challenge, and the opening weekend test will serve as a benchmark to see just how far this team has come entering its sixth year as an NCAA Division I program.
"It's one of those things that we have to come out fast and hard and strong," junior defenseman Kelsey Crow said. "We have a lot of new freshmen, so if we can come out of that weekend executing what we want to execute, that's a strong start."
The Nittany Lions have seven new freshmen on campus this year, to go along with 17 returning players from last season. They have big shoes to fill, as the team must replace its top two goal scorers from last year in Amy Petersen and Laura Bowman.
Perhaps the most notable addition has been head coach Jeff Kampersal, who spent 21 years as the head coach at Princeton. Kampersal is the second head coach in Penn State history after helping the Tigers to two NCAA Tournaments and two Ivy League championships (2006, 2016) during his tenure there.
One of Kampersal's main points has been to get the team to bond together this offseason, and, while they haven't necessarily had a lot of time to do so, they are certainly taking advantage of the opportunities they have.
"There's a ping pong table in the locker room, and people are always over there playing ping pong," Kampersal said. "Even though it's more of a fun nature, they're competing hard. Hopefully that competition level carries over to the ice."
Kampersal has noticed his team's excitement as the first game approaches, and he's hoping that energy is something they can sustain throughout the entire season on and off the ice.
"In the locker room now, there's a lot of heart and soul and a lot of kids that just love to play hockey. That's what we're hoping to bring out, hopefully that joy for them to come to the rink every day."
A program like Penn State has its perks, with the success of the athletic department allowing for top facilities like Pegula Ice Arena, a high-quality venue not seen very often elsewhere in college hockey.
"The resources here are crazy, and we're trying to teach them to be grateful for everything they have," Kampersal said.
Kampersal also wants to reinvent the culture at Penn State, bringing his own blue collar mindset over from his experience at Princeton.
"We want to be really tough to play against and we want to be the best-shaped team," he said. "That's going to be our brand; being tenacious and conditioned."
The Nittany Lions have set their goals high, shooting for a CHA championship this season, and they all know that starts with a strong showing in the opening weeks against this tricky non-conference slate.
Turning the corner for a program starts in practice, where Penn State has been working hard in a couple areas to make sure its firing on all cylinders this weekend.
"It starts with work ethic, we've been skating hard in practice all offseason," senior forward Aly Hardy said.
"Our passing game has definitely improved for sure. If someone makes a mistake, we're not going to make it again," Crow said. "We see it, we understand it, we fix it."
Puck drop on Friday is scheduled at 8 p.m. in Duluth. Saturday's game will begin at 4 p.m. The home slate begins next weekend with a visit from Union.