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By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Head coach Erica Dambach loaded up the 2017 non-conference schedule a bit heavier than most coaches around the country would feel comfortable with.
The first true test of the year was against West Virginia, which was pegged as the No. 1 team in the country before the season began. The Mountaineers made it to the national championship game last year but fell short to Southern California.
So, of course, Dambach jumped on the opportunity to give her team an early challenge and scheduled West Virginia as the fourth game of the year.
Junior midfielder and forward Alina Ortega Jurado said she loves the way Dambach approaches scheduling.
"We think we're one of the best teams in the country right now, and [Dambach] wants us to play against the best teams to see where we're at," Ortega Jurado said.
The Nittany Lions battled tough in one of the most intimidating environments in the country but fell 2-1 to the Mountaineers in Morgantown, WV.
Next up--North Carolina.
Yes, that North Carolina. The same North Carolina that has claimed a whopping 21 national championships since 1982. The Tar Heels have won more titles than all other teams combined.
Penn State will play host to North Carolina Thursday at 7 p.m. on the Big Ten Network. The Tar Heels come in to Happy Valley ranked sixth in the country, right behind the Nittany Lions, who sit at No. 5.
"They just put a lot of pressure on teams," Dambach said of the Tar Heels. "They press hard, they press with a lot of numbers, they attack with a lot of numbers, and so we expect them to be a big risk, big reward team."
Dambach also said the key to the game will be winning balls sent into the box on both ends.
If playing West Virginia and North Carolina back-to-back wasn't hard enough, the Nittany Lions have to travel to Charlottesville, Va. to play No. 8 Virginia on Sunday. It will be the third straight game Penn State plays against a top-eight opponent in the polls.
It's one of the most daunting non-conference schedules any team will face this season, but that's just the way Dambach and the Nittany Lions like it.
Redshirt junior defender Maddie Elliston said she loves the challenge and would want to play top-10 teams every game if she had the choice.
"It shows you where you're at," Elliston said. "It just adds so much to really see all the talent and get to play teams that you might not face until tournament time. It just challenges you in different ways. Every team brings something so unique."
Dambach has preached being "bulletproof" early and often this season. She said she wants the team to experience every style of play they might face in the Big Ten and in the postseason looking forward.
In her mind, she says scheduling the best teams in the country is the best way to make the team bulletproof.
"The schedule has been awesome from that standpoint," Dambach said. "We have seen so many different approaches to matches, and in these next two games we're going to see two even more completely different approaches to games, so we are getting exposed in a lot of different areas. We're figuring out what we're able to do against some of these systems. We're making some tweaks. We're making some changes and we can figure out if these adjustments work."
Elliston echoed Dambach's thoughts and said each non-conference opponent on the schedule brings a new challenge with them.
From Arkansas' physicality, to West Virginia's size up top, to North Carolina's individual playmakers and creativity--each test provides an additional piece to Penn State's suit of armor that will make the team bulletproof by the end of the season.