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By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State took down Stony Brook 7-0 in the first round of the NCAA tournament last Friday, but the competition heats up this weekend as the Nittany Lions travel to Morgantown, West Virginia.
The Blue and White, ranked No. 10 and a No. 3 seed in the tournament, will square off against No. 24 Wake Forest Friday at 4 p.m. in the second round of the tournament. With a win, the road to a second championship in three years doesn't get any easier.
Penn State's potential third round game on Sunday would be against the winner of No. 22 Rutgers and No. 7 West Virginia. The Morgantown pod of four teams may be the toughest in the field to overcome, as it's the only pod out of eight to feature four ranked teams.
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they're playing their best soccer of the year right now. They've outscored opponents 10-1 since postseason play began with the Big Ten tournament.
"I think the whole team in general has grown a lot just from the beginning of the year," redshirt junior Emily Ogle said. "Knowing each other's tendencies and starting to get in a real flow and rhythm with the people around us. We've come a long way and it's finally starting to show."
One of the biggest reasons for Penn State's recent dominance is the offensive emergence of Laura Freigang. She has scored at least one goal in three straight matches and is coming off a three-goal game in the first round. It was the 21st hat trick in program history.
Freigang's recent surge garnered national praise, as she was named to the TopDrawerSoccer Team of the Week two weeks in a row.
The sophomore from Oppenheim, Germany now leads the team in goals (eight), points (17), and game-winning goals (four) this season.
"It was a long time coming," head coach Erica Dambach said. "She's been in and out of the group with national team duty. It's taken her a while to get fully integrated, and we thought that once she did this was going to be the result. We finally were able to slide her into the starting lineup on a consistent basis and the result has been magical."
Freigang has competed with the German Women's National Team since she was only 15. Recently, she played four matches in the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup last November.
Freigang said the pressure that comes with national team matches has helped her this year to produce in the clutch. Teammates have noticed, too.
"She has experience in these big stage games and it showed," Ogle said. "She's been our go-to player and has really come up big for us when we need her. She's a great player and she has that experience she can lead on when we need it the most."
Penn State will rely heavily on Freigang for some offensive firepower this weekend against stiff competition.
Here's what each team in the challenging pod presents for Penn State.
Wake Forest is a cohesive group that works well together up top. Of the team's 31 total goals scored this season, 29 were assisted on.
Bayley Fiest leads the team with eight goals and 18 points on the year, but the Demon Deacons feature a balanced offensive attack in which 13 players have scored at least one goal.
Wake Forest's best win this season came against South Carolina back in August. The Gamecocks are a No. 1 seed in the tournament, and Wake Forest defeated them, 3-2.
Dambach said the key to beating Wake Forest will be dominating the flanks on both ends of the field.
"They are good in the attack in the flanks, and I think in our attack we can get at them in those areas," Dambach said.
She also said Penn State needs to have success with set pieces like it did against Stony Brook. The Nittany Lions scored two goals off set pieces in that match, and Dambach said that could make or break the team in this upcoming game.
The Demon Deacons upset No. 15 Georgetown in penalty kicks in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and they'll be hungry for another one Friday.
If Penn State can scrape by Wake Forest, a potential matchup with the Mountaineers would be especially intriguing.
Penn State already faced West Virginia in Morgantown earlier this season and came up one goal short in a thriller. A rematch would have every college soccer fan's eye on Sunday.
The Mountaineers are the No. 2 seed in the region and sport a 16-3-2 record. They've won eight of their last 10 and haven't lost since September 24.
The two powerhouses have played each other at least once in each of the past eight years and seem to always run into each other in the NCAA tournament. Penn State had to go through West Virginia during its 2015 national championship run.
The rivalry has an enthralling history. The series record sits at a deadlock at 7-7-2, and 11 of those 16 matches were either one-goal games or draws.
Michaela Abam leads the Mountaineers with 10 goals on the season. She's extremely aggressive offensively, as she averages almost six shots per game.
Goalkeeper Rylee Foster has been sturdy all season long. She owns a 0.56 goals against average and a .774 save percentage.
Defense, defense, defense.
That's been Rutgers' identity since All-American goalkeeper Casey Murphy arrived in Piscataway three years ago.
The redshirt junior has allowed just six goals in 20 games this season. Her 0.28 goals against average is the top mark in the country.
The Scarlet Knights frustrate their opponents with stifling defense and physicality. The chippy, low-scoring game with plenty of fouls is Rutgers' comfort zone.
Penn State has played Rutgers twice this season and neither team has scored in 220 minutes of game time. The Nittany Lions grinded out a victory in penalty kicks in the Big Ten tournament. If this rematch occurs, expect the first team to score to pull out the win.
Going away to a hostile environment and making it through Morgantown will undoubtedly be Penn State's biggest challenge of the season, but confidence is oozing from this squad right now. The friendly confines of Jeffrey Field won't be revisited this season, but the Nittany Lions are ready for a fight on the road.
"There's no place like Jeffrey Field," Ogle said. "It's the best place in the country to play college soccer, but we're hunters. We go on the road and we try to eat, we try to get the job done. It doesn't matter where we play--we'll play anyone anywhere."