April 2, 2009

Penn State Needs Upset at ALC-ACC Challenge

by Daniel Malloy | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Midfielder Kerry Shea has 11 goals and 17 draw controls for No. 14 Penn State. The Nittany Lions enter a pivotal weekend with games against No. 2 Maryland and No. 4 North Carolina looming at the ALC-ACC Challenge in Columbus, Ohio.
© Ed Purcell

It's not a schedule; it's a gauntlet.

Penn State women's lacrosse coach Suzanne Isidor just laughs when she's asked about it. It's not quite the laugh of a punch-drunk boxer, but it's the sign of one who knows there's nothing left to do but chuckle at the circumstances of a team barely above .500 but still ranked No. 14 because, well, how do you dock a team points for losing to the best in the country?

Until they snapped the streak last Saturday with a win over William and Mary, the Nittany Lions had lost four straight to, in succession, then-No. 2 Virginia, No. 7 Princeton, No. 3 Penn and No. 11 Vanderbilt.

And the road gets tougher from here.

This weekend the Nittany Lions have games against No. 2 Maryland and No. 4 North Carolina in the ALC-ACC Challenge in Columbus, Ohio. Oh, and did we mention No. 1 juggernaut Northwestern looms on the schedule for April 12?

Isidor said she schedules that way for a reason, to give her players a chance to play against the nation's top teams. And this year, the Nittany Lions' usual nonconference foes like Penn, Princeton and Virginia all just happened to be outstanding at the same time.

"A lot of our student-athletes chose Penn State because we do play all the best competition, so it's something they come here knowing we're going to do," Isidor said. "I think in the last couple years it's been especially difficult, because games that maybe weren't as tough now are tougher. I think now all our games have become pretty tough."

And in those tough games, Penn State has often shown its promise, but come up short. The first three losses of that four-game losing streak came by a combined six goals, including an overtime loss to Virginia in which the Nittany Lions blew a six-goal second half lead.

"A lot of people have complimented us on the way we play top teams close," Isidor said. "That's nice to a certain extent, but our team doesn't see it that way. We played them tough, but that's not good enough. They came out of those games disappointed, but also confident they can get the next one."

Isidor said the experience will help the Nittany Lions in the NCAA tournament -- if they can get there. They are holding on in the rankings, and the selectors will certainly appreciate the level of competition, but the Nittany Lions' wins all have come against teams from the Patriot League, Northeast Conference and Colonial Athletic Association. Not a ranked team stands among them.

To earn an at-large bid -- because, let's face it, Northwestern is all but inked in for the ALC title -- Penn State will have to topple one of the remaining heavyweights on that schedule. Isidor said she is aware that upsets are necessary for her squad to reach its first NCAA tournament since 2005, but she's confident that this group remains unfazed by its losses thus far.

 "With losses, that's always a concern -- the mental fatigue," Isidor said. "But I think this team especially has handled that stretch of games -- that four-game stretch -- really, really well and each day came out to practice even tougher and even more determined. We've discussed the physical and mental fatigue from having to play such tough teams. But we are hanging tough, and we're obviously coming into a huge weekend."

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