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By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - International recruiting has become more and more imperative to success in college soccer in recent years.
There are capable players littered all across the country, but legitimate cornerstone players can be found outside of the United States of America.
Take Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez for example. The Costa Rica native was recruited five years ago to Penn State and led the Nittany Lions to their first ever national championship win by scoring the only goal in the title match.
Head coach Erica Dambach gives most of the credit to recruiting coordinator and assistant coach Tim Wassell, who actively seeks out potential international stars every offseason who could make an impact.
"He's done a nice job of getting us into the international market," said Dambach. "International student-athletes have always been a big part of this program. We feel it is important to expose our players to the highest level in the world and that includes providing them the opportunity to compete against international competition on a daily basis."
This year Penn State brought in two freshmen from overseas, Grace Fisk from Bromley, London, England, and Laura Freigang from Oppenheim, Germany, with hopes they can do just what Rodriguez was able to accomplish.
Alina Ortega Jurado, a sophomore from Waldgirmes, Germany, rounds out the group. The three international players is the most on a Penn State squad since the 2012 season.
Fisk and Ortega Jurado are intriguing players this season because of the big shoes they are currently filling.
Ellie Jean (right back) and Kaleigh Riehl (center back) are taking a year away from the team to compete with the U-20 women's national team. Jean and Riehl were both voted to the Big Ten All-Freshman team in their first seasons. Both were part of a back line that posted 15 shutouts a year ago.
Enter Fisk and Ortega Jurado. Fisk is taking Riehl's place in the center of the defense, and Ortega Jurado completely switched positions to fill the void at right back.
Fisk didn't arrive on the Penn State campus until August 1, just 10 days before the Nittany Lions would suit up in their first scrimmage of the preseason.
Nine days after her first tune-up, Fisk was thrust into the starting lineup on opening day in front of more than 5,000 fans against No. 6 West Virginia. Fisk played all 110 minutes and has only missed one start all season since then.
She was given barely any time to adjust to the American lifestyle she knew nothing about beforehand, but she has responded tremendously. The center back has logged 1170 minutes in 13 games, which is the fourth highest total on the team.
"I've been here for two months but I feel like I've been here so much longer," Fisk said. "I feel like I fit in fine and the girls have been so welcoming. It's just been great."
Before deciding to travel 3,260 miles to State College to play college soccer in America, Fisk really had no idea what she wanted to do after high school. No options in England seemed to interest her, and the thought of playing overseas seemed daunting until Wassell contacted her.
Wassell watched Fisk play and immediately saw a star in the making. After talking to Wassell and conducting some research on Penn State, it didn't take long for Fisk to make her decision.
"Everything kind of fell into place," said Fisk. "I looked Penn State up and it just looked amazing."
Before coming to the states, Fisk played in more than 25 matches with the England women's national team at four different age levels. She was also named Young Player of the Year last year for her club team, the Millwall Lionesses FC.
Fisk says the biggest adjustment she had to make was the uptick in strength and conditioning drills and the sheer amount of soccer being played every day.
"She's never played this much soccer in her life," said head coach Erica Dambach. "She has blisters all over her feet, and I think that goes to show she's just not used to playing this much soccer. With that being said, she has quietly put together a tremendous freshman season."
Fisk's father, Alan, watches every game from home and provides a detailed match report after each contest outlining the good and bad of Fisk's performance. She hopes her family can make a trip next year to see her play live.
As for Ortega Jurado, her journey to the starting lineup is much different.
She played in 20 games in her freshman season last year and was chosen to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team along with Jean and Riehl. She played both forward and midfield in 2015, but this year Ortega Jurado has started every game at right back and logged 1293 minutes.
Fisk described Ortega Jurado as a wizard on defense. Not a bad compliment for someone who has only played the position for only a few months.
"As she was learning to play in the back this past spring she had her frustrating moments but through video, hard work and repetition she started to pick up some of the nuances of the position," said Dambach. "Then she came into the preseason and all of the sudden had a tipping point and, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the best right backs in the country right now. She's been fantastic."
Ortega Jurado played for the German national team at three different age levels. She competed in the U-17 and U-19 European Championships while with the national team.
Freigang traveled the longest distance to play soccer at Penn State (3,997 miles). She has started two matches and come off the bench in nine.
Unlike Fisk and Ortega Jurado, Freigang plays up top and looks to score goals as a substitute. In her first career game Freigang scored in a 1-1 draw against West Virginia to ensure a point for the Nittany Lions.
"I couldn't have wished for a better start, except for maybe winning the game," said Freigang. "It was great. It was a great feeling and the crowd was amazing. It was one of the best nights ever."
She has logged 600 minutes on the pitch and serves as a strong-footed compliment to the speedy forwards Penn State boasts up top.
Freigang started to build interest in Penn State after skyping with Dambach and Wassell a few times. Once she visited the campus back in March, she knew it was where she wanted to be.
Freigang played for five different age levels on the German women's national team. She competed in the U-16 Nordic Cup Championships in which she scored a goal, the U-17 World Cup, and the U-19 European Championships.
All three players have at least three years of national team experience, which has prepared them to step in and contribute right away for the Nittany Lions.
"They're a riot. They're so much fun to have around and I think the team's really enjoying them and vice-versa," Dambach said. "They provide a little bit of a different flair. They see the game in a different way. They talk about the game in a different way, and I think it brings so much to the experience of all of our student athletes. They've been an absolute pleasure to have within this squad."