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Aug 29, 2013
By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Ask the casual fan what has made the Penn State women's soccer team one of the nation's top programs in recent years and they'll most likely state Maya Hayes goal scoring ability or Whitney Church's stout defense.
While the talent of those players and many others has certainly been invaluable, both the Nittany Lions and head coach Erica Walsh will tell you that what has really set the Nittany Lions apart has been their unique and multitalented staff of coaches and trainers.
"I think that one of the best things about our coaching staff is that they're all a little bit different and they all have something a little unique to bring to the table," said senior co-captain Taylor Schram. "Since they are all different they balance each other out and we are lucky because of that."
Walsh, the 2012 NSCAA National Coach of the Year, was quick to attribute her success to her dedicated staff of assistants, and for her, it all begins with associate head coach Ann Cook.
A former teammate of Walsh at William & Mary, Cook has been a mainstay on the Penn State staff for the past seven years and has been monumental in the offensive development of the Nittany Lions.
"I cannot stress the importance of Ann to our program," said Walsh. "Her investment in our players' development both on and off the field is the main reason why our attack has been so successful over the past six years."
Three years after Walsh and Cook arrived at Penn State in 2007, they decided to look locally for additional coaching talent and found a nearby gem in Penn State Altoona head coach Tim Wassell.
After leading Altoona's program for 3 years, Wassell joined Walsh's staff as an assistant in 2010 where his approach to defense, attention to detail, and knowledge of statistics have made him an integral part of the women's soccer program.
"As far as details are concerned, there is no better coach than Tim," said Walsh. "Whether it's working with our goalkeepers, giving a scouting report, or preparing for a recruiting visit, Tim leaves no stone unturned and works tirelessly to ensure success for our program."
With an already impressive set of coaches established within the program, the Nittany Lions received an added infusion of energy this season with the arrival of volunteer assistant Mike Eckberg and new director of operations Kara Lowery.
While both Lowery and Eckberg are new to Penn State, they have been able to fit in seamlessly with their intelligence and ability to focus on the needs of individuals.
"Kara's extensive knowledge of this sport at the highest level has helped us meet our student-athlete's daily needs and it feel as though she's been with our staff for years," said Walsh. "As for Mike, we were looking for energy, personality, and individual player development from our final piece and that's what we found in him."
Along with the fine work of Walsh and her coaching staff, the Nittany Lions have also had the benefit of working with strength and conditioning coach Greg Miskinis and athletic trainer Kelly Saxton.
Between Miskinis's demanding and advanced workout regimen and Saxton's tireless effort and attention to need, Walsh's squad has been in their best health and shape in years.
"Greg has made an immediate impact both in the weight room and the program by helping to push our players to their maximum potential," said Walsh. "Then we have Kelly, who puts in so many hours each week to make sure all 29 student-athletes and the staff are taken care of."
The workouts designed by Miskinis, who also works with Penn State's football team, have been received enthusiastically by the players as well.
"He has a different style than what we are used to and I think that it contributes in a positive way," said sophomore Raquel Rodriguez. "He has great chemistry with the team and he is very approachable when it comes to asking questions."
Working along with this staff is academic advisor Jim Weaver, a man who neither the team's coaches or players refrain from praising.
By emphasizing organization and making sure every student-athlete has the resources necessary to focus on both soccer and school, Weaver has made himself an irreplaceable part of the Nittany Lions family.
"Without a doubt, the number one reason so many student-athletes choose to join our program over all the other top schools in the country is Jim's dedication," said Walsh. "His no-nonsense approach to academic success is why we continue to have one of the top GPAs in the country."
Although the effort of Penn State's assistants may seem to fly under the radar, it would be wrong to suggest that only Walsh has noticed their performance.
Every member of the Nittany Lions, from the seniors to the freshmen, appreciates the dedication of the staff, and the relationships that have blossomed because of it.
"What has really caught my attention is that the coaches here care about you as a person first, not just an athlete," said Rodriguez. "That's huge in leadership and it makes me feel good about this team."