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After rolling into Elite 8, is this Penn State’s year?

Penn State's Megan Schafer. (Photo: Penn State/Craig Houtz)

Penn State’s Megan Schafer. (Photo: Penn State/Craig Houtz)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Ask any coach and she’ll tell you, the team you have at the end of a season is a completely different team from the one you had at the beginning.

It’s inevitable. Chemistry and relationships are strengthened, skills are sharpened and lessons are learned during the course of a season. This seems especially true if that team is full of underclassman.As a coach, you hope that this culminates in your team peaking at the right time — the postseason.

Heading into the penultimate weekend of the 2015 college season, Penn State appears to be doing just that.

Since the NCAA tournament began, no other team has run the table more convincingly against the opponents it’s faced than the Nittany Lions. The team scored 15 goals in those contests while allowing none. Only one other team in the Elite Eight has registered three clean sheets so far in the tournament: Florida State. But Penn State has recorded five more goals in than the Seminoles in that time.

“We’re a young team,” Penn State head coach Erica Walsh said about her team’s progression this season. “If you listen to them announce our team it’s all freshman, sophomore, sophomore, so we’ve got a lot of room to grow. I think if you look back then I think we’re a completely different team at this point. We’ve got all the same pieces, but the way they are playing (is different). Our attack is so much more dynamic. Our defense is more seasoned and they are more experienced. The communication is better.”

[MORE: A look at the eight teams remaining in the NCAA tournament]

Penn State has never won an NCAA championship in women’s soccer, only once advancing to the final, in 2012 when the Nittany Lions lost to North Carolina, 4-1.

Walsh isn’t exaggerating all that much about her team’s starting lineup. Penn State starts six freshmen and sophomores, combined, and these players have had a major impact on the team. In fact, all but two of the goals the Nittany Lions scored in the postseason so far have come from underclassman and its entire back line consists of freshmen and sophomores.

Before last weekend’s second- and third-round NCAA tournament games, the Nittany Lions worked on team defense, a strategy that paid dividends. On Sunday, Penn State limited Ohio State to just five shots, only two of which were on goal. Especially in the second half, whenever the Nittany Lions lost the ball, they fought doggedly to get it back, forcing a tired Ohio State team to work harder to get into their attacking half.

“We haven’t had the ability to bring so many players off the bench and have so many players,” Walsh said about her team’s recent form. “I think our depth is huge for us right now. They’re a big part of our success, but as far as the last three games are concerned, I think they are three of the best games we’ve played all season long.”

On Sunday, 20 different Nittany Lions saw time in a 4-0 victory over Ohio State. Penn State broke the deadlock just before the half when Megan Schafer received the ball back to goal and beat a double-team to give Penn State the lead. The Nittany Lions quickly added two more tallies within the first six minutes of the second half.

Penn State’s depth proved key in the second half. With the game largely in hand, the Nittany Lions could bring in fresh legs, while the Buckeyes — coming off a hard-fought match against Virginia Tech — only used two substitutes in the match.

The Ohio State game serves as sort of a benchmark for the Nittany Lions to measure how far the team as progressed this season. The Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions played each other back in October, and Penn State also won that contest 2-1. The scoreline wasn’t the only thing that has improved in the Nittany Lions’ favor since the Oct. 24 meeting between the two sides.

When asked about the difference between Penn State now and then, Ohio State head coach Lori Walker pointed to the her opponents’ shooting precision.

“The thing that is impressive about them right now is just their accuracy and you know if you give anyone on Penn State an open look at the top of the D, they are going to put it on frame and be dangerous,” Walker said.

The Nittany Lions will need to be accurate this weekend to get past their next opponent, West Virginia. The Mountaineers boast one of the best defenses in the country, led by one of this summer’s breakout stars of the World Cup, Canada’s Kadeisha Buchanan. West Virginia has allowed just nine goals in 22 contests this season.

Interestingly, just like the match with Ohio State, this Elite Eight game will also be a rematch. The two teams faced off in Morgantown, W. Va., back on Sept. 4. The Mountaineers were victorious in that affair, winning 1-0 at home. Saturday will serve as another type of benchmark for the Nittany Lions’ growth on the season. Can they turn the table on one of the three opponents to hand them a loss this year on Saturday?

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