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John McGonigal | Centre Daily Times | August 19, 2016

Penn State tasked with defending national title

Repetition after repetition, the same drill was run: 11-on-11, break down the defense and get up the field.

Practice was supposed to end 15 minutes ago.

But Penn State women's soccer coach Erica Dambach wasn't satisfied.

"It's got to be perfect," Dambach bellowed.

That's what a national champion expects from her team.

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After clinching the 2015 Women's College Cup, the Penn State women's soccer program is in uncharted waters. The Nittany Lions earned their first national title when they defeated Duke 1-0 in December.

Up until last season, Dambach and her players were always hunting.

Now, as the Nittany Lions prepare to open their season at 7:30 p.m. Friday against West Virginia at Jeffrey Field, they're the ones being hunted.

"Finally getting over the hurdle, now the challenge changes," Dambach said. "Now you've got to focus on how to sustain the level of excellence. That's a brand new challenge, and you can argue an even tougher challenge."

Since winning the national championship eight months ago, the program has been more widely recognized. Dambach said on a national — and even international — level, support from alumni has continued to pour in. Plus, having that NCAA trophy is a boost to recruiting, the coach noted.

But with that attention comes an added burden.

As Dambach alluded to, keeping a title is typically more difficult than getting it in the first place.

Sure, every soccer program in the country knows that Penn State has been a power for quite some time -- 17 Big Ten titles in the last 18 years will turn some heads.

But now it's just a little different.

"Every year, just being Penn State, we have a target on our backs," redshirt junior defender Brittany Basinger said. "We're really looking forward to the opportunity. ... They're going to be playing their best games, and we'll need to, too."

Her teammate and fellow captain Nickolette Driesse agreed.

"It's harder to defend a national championship than it is to win one," the senior midfielder said. "Keeping that in mind, everyone is going to come up against us, and know that we're a very good team. They're going to have a different mentality, and we'll have to bring it a lot harder."

And they'll have to do it without several keys to their 2015 run.

Last year's captains — Raquel Rodriguez, Mallory Weber and Britt Eckerstrom — all need to be replaced, and it won't be easy.

Rodriguez was dubbed the nation's best player in 2015, earning the MAC Hermann Trophy, the Heisman of college soccer. She scored the game-winning goal against Duke in the title game, and played in the 2015 Women's World Cup for Costa Rica.

Weber was named to the Women's College Cup All-Tournament Team, led the Big Ten in assists (11), and also scored eight goals, while Eckerstrom was a stalwart in net, starting every game last year and posting 15 shutouts with a 0.46 goals allowed average.

Dambach said the Nittany Lions are figuring out a young midfield, so Rodriguez's presence isn't going to be replaced by just one player.

Penn State does return a pair of lethal threats on the attack. Junior forwards Megan Schafer and Frannie Crouse led the Nittany Lions in 2015 with 13 and 11 goals, respectively, and they also combined to contribute 11 assists.

On the other end, it looks like Dambach has found Eckerstrom's replacement in net.

The coach said true freshman goalkeeper Amanda Dennis has exuded "tremendous leadership" during the preseason. Dennis has been a member of a number of age-level United States national teams, and recorded two wins in net for the Under-18 team at the La Manga Tournament in Spain in March.

"She's been quite sharp," Dambach said of Dennis. "Amanda's shown great promise, and we're really excited about her."

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She, along with the rest of her teammates, will be tested early. The Mountaineers, ranked No. 6 in the NSCAA preseason poll, return to Jeffrey Field after falling 2-0 on the same field in the NCAA quarterfinals last year.

Driesse is expecting an amped West Virginia squad.

"We'll have to be aggressive," the midfielder said. "That's really going to set the standard for the rest of the season."

As for Penn State's standing in the NSCAA poll, the Nittany Lions are No. 2, just behind Florida State and ahead of Duke.

But Dambach really doesn't put much emphasis on that.

"That is the 2015 team," the coach said. "The rankings are all about what you've done in the past. For us, we're trying to find an identity. We're trying to figure out who we are."

No doubt, the Nittany Lions have a lot of moving pieces -- a new goalkeeper and midfield with three different captains can cause some growing pains.

Plus, they have the pressure of defending a national championship.

But Dambach knows what she has: a crop of talented players, eager to bring a second trophy to Happy Valley.

That title defense begins Friday.

This article was written by John McGonigal from Centre Daily Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.