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By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In college soccer, teams don't play any opponent more than once in the regular season. The only way Penn State would play a rematch against any regular season foe is if it occurred in the conference or NCAA tournament.
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they've had plenty of postseason experience. Penn State has made both the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament 22 times each in its history.
That means that the Blue and White have had plenty of experience gearing up to play a team twice in one season, and they've had great success in those games.
Since 2012, Penn State is 9-4-2 in postseason rematches against teams previously played the same year. Head coach Erica Dambach said her players always come into rematches with a chip on their shoulder.
"They seem to come in to those matches with a different level of determination," Dambach said.
"We respect every opponent. We take every game one game at a time, so just because they did something the first time we played them doesn't mean they're going to do the same thing the next time," midfielder Salina Williford said about playing teams twice. "Every team changes when they play us, so we got to prepare differently for every game depending on what we think they're going to do."
The Nittany Lions defeated Rutgers in penalty kicks last Sunday in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to add another impressive rematch win to its resume. Penn State played Rutgers to a draw in the regular season.
The next task will be avenging a loss to Big Ten regular season champions, Ohio State from earlier this year. Penn State faces Ohio State Friday at 1 p.m. in a Big Ten semifinal match.
"[Ohio State has] definitely evolved over the past couple of weeks since we played them," Williford said. "We're going to try and tweak some things and see what we can learn from what we did last time."
The Buckeyes won the first match in Columbus, Ohio back on September 30 by a score of 1-0, even though Penn State outshot them 12-5. Dambach said it wasn't one of the team's best games, but that the squad is much more confident and prepared this time around.
"What I've seen from this group the past 10 days or so is a recommitment, a reinvestment, and just a completely different mentality against Rutgers," she said. "Certainly there are tactical things we can take from Ohio State but I think the mentality is what we're most excited about right now."
Dambach and the rest of the team believe this isn't the same group that lost to Ohio State over a month ago. Coming off an impressive win against arguably the best defensive teams in the country, Penn State is confident it can go in and knock off the No. 1 seeded Buckeyes.
"I think we're a new team going into the postseason, redshirt senior Brittany Basinger said. "We've really put a lot of different things together and worked on different things that we were struggling with before, and I think we're ready."
A big part of their success Friday will be dependent on the Nittany Lions' ability to surprise Ohio State in some fashion. Williford said the team's game plan in the first match was too simple and easy to counter. She said it won't be the same this time around.
"I think especially in the beginning of the year we were pretty predictable in our attack, so we're going to try and be more unpredictable and more mobile," she said.
Dambach prepares for postseason rematches a little differently than she does regular season games.
"Conference teams know you so well, so you've got to throw some wrinkles in," she said. "You got to make sure that there's some surprises, especially in the attack. This was a match that we didn't perform to our best and I think the team's in a different place right now."
Along with the motivation of revenge and the ability to change the attacking game plan on the fly, a huge factor that has driven Penn State to such a stout record in rematch games is the fire inside knowing the end of the season is upon them.
If Penn State loses Friday to Ohio State, it surely wouldn't be the end of the Nittany Lions' season, but every postseason game feels like a do-or-die. Playing Big Ten tournament games as if they were elimination games helps Penn State prepare for the NCAA tournament of true win-or-go-home matches.
"We really need to go in to each game like it's our last game because we're at the time where it could be, so just kind of giving it everything we have once we step on the field," Williford said.