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Spartans' 1st Big Ten test could be toughest

September 23, 2009

Freshman defender Kelsey Kassab fights with Illinois State forward Jessica Carlson in a Spartan 2-0 victory Sept. 11 at Old College Field.

Photo by Josh Radtke | The State News

Sunday afternoon only might be the opening of the Big Ten season for the No. 13 MSU women’s soccer team, but the atmosphere at DeMartin Stadium at Old College Field will be that of a championship game.

The Spartans (6-0-2) face No. 22 Penn State at noon Sunday in a matchup of the conference’s top two teams, as determined by the preseason polls.

That, coupled with MSU’s 2-1 win over the 12-time reigning Big Ten Champions last season, means Sept. 27 long has been circled on MSU’s calendar.

“I’m really excited. Obviously, I’ve looked forward to Penn State and when we’re going to play them since the schedule came out,” sophomore goalkeeper Jill Flietstra said. “We’re all getting real excited and we’re all getting mentally prepared.”

The Spartans had plenty of time to focus on the Nittany Lions, as the conference opener represents their only game this week. After playing three games last week, head coach Tom Saxton said he planned on running select players through light workouts Tuesday, before emphasizing the preparation needed to take on what Saxton called “by far the best soccer program in the history of women’s soccer in the Big Ten.”

Although Penn State’s 4-4 record might cause some to question the Nittany Lions’ talent level this season, a longer look at their schedule explains the .500 record. The Nittany Lions opened the season with a win against then-No. 9 Virginia, following a 2-1 loss to then-No. 14 West Virginia. They also lost to then-No. 5 Florida State and then-No. 8 Wake Forest.

In net, Penn State has preseason All-American Alyssa Naeher, who has recorded just one shutout so far. Offensively, the Nittany Lions have two dominant strikers in Melissa Hayes and Northville-native Danielle Toney, who Saxton called “crazy fast.”

Because of those weapons, Saxton said he still expects another great Penn State despite the .500 record, and especially is curious to see what happens when the Spartans face Penn State’s defense.

“My biggest concern is what they’re going to bring to us with their offense, because Santa Barbara was decent, but we have not faced anything like an offense as potent as Penn State’s this year,” Saxton said. “That’s going to be the big key to the game on Sunday.”

The Spartans have faced slight challenges this year in games against Santa Barbara, Kent State and Eastern Michigan, but players know Sunday is when the real challenge begins.

“It’s fun to play in the nonconference games, but once you get to the Big Ten season that’s when the part that really counts gets going,” senior midfielder Megan Brown said. “And to start it with Penn State — we’re fresh, we’ve got the intensity, so we’re really excited.”

For as much publicity as the Spartans’ offense garnered heading into the season, the MSU defense has been as impressive through the team’s first eight games. Flietstra has allowed just three goals, while the defense as a whole has given up just 56 shots — almost three times the number of shots the Spartans have put up.

Offensively, MSU has lived up to the hype, led by senior forward Lauren Hill, with eight goals. Unfortunately, the Spartans will be without Hill — suspended for Sunday’s match after picking up two yellow cards against Eastern on Sept. 20 — but still have plenty of offensive weapons. Sophomore forward Laura Heyboer (six goals, three assists) leads a group of talented players — senior forward Lauren Sinacola (one goal, three assists), junior forward Cara Freeman (two goals, four assists) and freshmen Olivia Stander and Jordan Mueller, each with one goal — that can step up and fill the void.

Sinacola said it comes down to the team’s memory of last year’s game against the Nittany Lions.

“We knew we had to play a really, really good game that day and our team just came together,” Sinacola said. “We dug down deep, and I think that’s what we need to do this year is just dig down deep, and know that we are capable of winning and we can do it.”

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