Six Big Ten teams made the NCAA Tournament. In a year when Penn State finished fourth in the Big Ten regular season standings and advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament, you would assume that they would be picked as one of the six schools from the conference to qualify for the 64 team tournament.
Well, you would be wrong. And you know what happens when you assume.
Penn State has acknowledged all season that they do not feel respected in the Big Ten. Third-year coach Amanda Lehotak spoke about gaining respect from the schools in the conference. After historically sweeping three series and finishing with a 14-9 conference record — better than traditional softball powers Nebraska and Ohio State — the Nittany Lions thought this was their groundbreaking year.
Big Ten school after Big Ten school was announced on the ESPNU selection show Sunday. Ohio State was granted a spot despite falling in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Illinois got in after finishing seventh in conference. Nebraska took a spot despite Penn State knocking them out of the Big Ten Tournament just two days before. And then there was Northwestern, who needed to win a Big Ten Tournament game to ensure the minimum requirement for an at-large team — a .500 record.
All of those schools plus Big Ten Champions Minnesota and No. 2 Michigan secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament. As each selection was rolled out, it became increasingly clear that Penn State is still not respected — by the Big Ten, the NCAA, or the college softball community as a whole.
Penn State softball has never been a traditional power, and in recent years hasn’t really even been good. This year may be the turning point for the program.
Five of nine starters in the batting order will return next season in addition to the two starting pitchers that were in the circle for the majority of this season’s innings. Losing Big Ten First Team honorees Macy Jones and Lexi Knief plus Erin Pond and Reina Furuya might hurt the program, but this was a team without a standout individual star player and that’s what allowed Penn State to succeed.
The Nebraska quarterfinal in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday solidified that outlook. The star of the day could’ve been junior Shelby Miller making a play on every ball that came to her at third base or freshman Madison Seifer, closing out a huge win by retiring the side in the seventh. It could’ve been sophomore catcher Alyssa VanDerveer smashing a ball over the fence for a grand slam or freshman designated player Tori Dubois hitting a crucial two-out double to score two more runs for the Nittany Lions.
The fact of the matter is that different Penn State players perform on different days. This isn’t a team depending on an ace in the circle or a slugger in the batter’s box to be successful. This is a young team that has many players who can perform on any given day. This depth allowed Penn State to win games this year and will likely allow them to win more in the future, with or without the respect of the Big Ten.