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Long layoff ending for five Penn College fall sports teams

After a near two-year offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fall sports athletes in soccer, women’s volleyball and cross-country are more than ready for their return to competitive action.

“We are ecstatic to be back on UPMC Field with the opportunity to compete this fall, and we are committed to make the most out of our first season back on the pitch. The biggest hurdles we face are our fitness levels and getting our touch back after such a long absence from competition,” women’s soccer coach Christa Matlack said.

“The team is excited to be back out and playing competitive soccer again,” men’s soccer coach Tyler Mensch said, noting that “2019 (when his team went 3-13-3 overall and 3-5-3 in the conference) left a very sour taste in all our mouths and we are looking to bounce back this fall. The guys are excited to be on the field again playing with each other and competing more than what we had been allowed during the 2020 COVID-plagued season. As a coach, I am enjoying our early-season training sessions and seeing that competitive side to guys that I haven’t seen since November of 2019.”

“We haven’t raced in 22½ months, so, obviously, it’s just kind of getting back in the swing of things, getting back in the groove, getting used to racing and remembering what that feels like,” men’s and women’s cross-country coach Nick Patton said. “I think everyone is excited. It’s something they’ve been looking forward to doing. It’s a big deal from that standpoint – getting back to competition – and I’m happy for them because it was a long time away.”

Although in her first season as the women’s volleyball coach, Carolyn McKeon said, “I am sure the Wildcat women are eager to get back on the court. The last few seasons have been challenging for them and I believe we are all looking forward to playing the sport we love so much on a regular basis with intentionality and passion. … I am beyond excited! My outlook is one of pure enthusiasm and determination to support these women in any way I can.”

Men’s soccer
“The biggest challenge we face is match fitness and trying to prevent injury,” Mensch said. “With not having a competitive season since 2019, the guys are amped up and that adrenaline/emotion can sometimes lead to overuse injuries or minor contact injuries based on hard challenges in training.

“We also need to find our new identity and the style of play in which we want to adapt this fall. We only have 10 returners with any sort of college soccer experience, so we need the young guys to learn quickly what it takes to play at the next level. It will take some matches for us to get adjusted to the speed and physicality of college soccer, but I am confident our underclassmen will be up to the challenge.”

The Wildcats open Wednesday in nonconference play at Keystone College and have four matches scheduled over the first seven days of September.

Among the top returning players are senior midfielder Chris McFarland, of Coatesville; senior forward/midfielder Colton Wartman, of Ellicott City, Maryland; senior midfielder Daniel Jackson, of Phoenixville; senior defender Dylan Snyder, of Northumberland; senior defender Tanner Layne, of Chesapeake, Virginia; and junior defender Gabe McKeon, of Williamsport.

McFarland was second-team all-conference in 2018 and 2019 while Wartman was third-team all-conference in 2018.

Mensch said he is counting on a deep roster and players coming off the bench to make a big impact.

“As a program, we are trying to stay cautiously optimistic. We had high expectations in 2019 and the season did not end up being what we wanted. We need to get back to our ways of being a blue-collar program that is going to grind out results and outwork our opponents,” said Mensch, whose teams in five seasons are 28-61-6. “On paper, in my opinion, we have a very deep team where I think a lot of guys can make an impact; however, we need to see it translate to the matches where there is more at stake than just a training session.

“(We have a) very young team with 19 guys on the roster who have never played a minute of college soccer. We are hopeful early on that the upperclassmen can lead the way and make our new guys feel comfortable with each other. Our early season nonconference schedule will help us get our feet wet with a lot of new guys learning what it takes to play at the college level.”

As far as team strengths, Mensch said, “We return a handful of defenders with playing experience and add a few new guys into the defensive mix that should solidify us defensively to start the year.”

Attacking, the coach said, is an area that needs work.

“We struggled to score goals in 2019 and we are looking for a breakout player or two this fall that can help us be more efficient in scoring goals,” Mensch said.

Keys to a successful season include “staying healthy and getting off to a good start. If we can get some positive results to start the season, that should help us build momentum into conference play,” the coach said.

Looking ahead to the season, Mensch said, “The United East Conference is going to be very strong from top to bottom. St. Mary’s of Maryland has joined our conference and they are a top 25 team in the country that I believe everyone will be chasing. PSU Harrisburg and Lancaster Bible will also be top contenders in the UEC as both sides return a lot of top guys. The UEC is only taking the top four for playoffs, so every match in conference play will be extremely important.

“As a program, we are hopeful we can get ourselves back into the playoff picture again and from there, anything can happen.”

Women’s soccer
Key returning players for Matlack are senior goalkeeper Taylor Gonzales, of Lititz; senior forward Kaelan Cronan, of Leesport; senior defender Madison Kistler, of Kutztown; junior defender Sloan Tressler, of Mill Hall; and senior center/midfielder Abby Williams, of Mechanicsburg.

Gonzales earned all-conference second-team honors in 2019 while Cronan, Tressler and Williams were third-team honorees. Tressler also was the college’s female Newcomer of the Year for 2019-20.

“The time off due to the pandemic has certainly been a setback for our program, but the student-athletes have accepted the challenge to get us back on track with hard work and effort over our first two weeks of preseason. It will take time, but this group is determined to have a successful season,” Matlack said as her team prepared for its Wednesday nonconference opener at King’s College.

In 2019, the Wildcats finished 10-9-1 overall and 9-4 in the conference after reaching the postseason for the fifth straight year. In two seasons under Matlack, they are 22-17-1.

“(We have a) young team. We have a class of eight incoming student-athletes that will definitely make an impact right away based on their fitness, technical skill and work ethic. I am hoping that this incoming class will jell with our returning athletes and make us a tough opponent this fall,” Matlack said.

The team’s strengths, according to the coach, are “resiliency and perseverance. This isn’t the first time that our program has been faced with a challenge during our fall season, and our response is always the same — we will work together to improve and won’t let this stop us. We are lucky to have a group of young women that show strength in the face of adversity and determination to overcome any obstacle that stands in our way.”

Areas that need improvement include fitness and tactical play, Matlack said, noting, “the time away diminished our soccer fitness significantly, but that is something that can be improved throughout the season. With a young team, implementing our tactical game could be a little difficult, but nothing that we cannot overcome.”

Staying healthy will be the key to the team’s success, the coach said.

“We have low numbers on our roster this fall, so our key to success will definitely be listening to our bodies and resting when necessary. We just need to play smart and take care of our injuries,” Matlack said.

Assessing the overall and conference seasons, Matlack said, “My hope is to be a strong contender in the UEC as previously shown prior to the pandemic. This year will definitely be a challenge for our athletes, but I hope their hard work pays off in the end.”

Men’s/women’s cross-country
In his teams’ last competitive races, on Nov. 16, 2019, at the NCAA Division III Mideast Regionals, the Penn College men placed 37th in a 51-team field over an 8K course and the women were last among 49 teams over a 6K course; but just three runners return from those teams.

Back for the men’s squad are juniors Dean Fulton, of Palmyra, and A.J. Wiles, of Glenville, and returning on the women’s team is senior Cinnamon Digan, of Mifflinburg.

“I expect leadership from them — pointing the freshmen in the right direction. Our teams are fairly young, so they’re going to need some guidance on and off the course,” Patton said.

Commenting on his men, Patton said there are one or two freshmen he thinks will work their way into their own and finish in the upper half of the conference.

“There is a lot of inexperience and we just need to figure out where we are and where we need to go. I would think that we’re still a contender for the top honor in the conference,” Patton said.

The seventh-year coach calls this a rebuilding season for his women’s squad, noting that it is young and inexperienced.

Both teams open Wednesday in nonconference races at the Misericordia Invitational.

Women’s volleyball
“Again, while the players are all new to me, we have three returning players – Hannah Burnett (libero, of Middlebury Center), Cheyenne Stein (setter, of Orwigsburg) and Coryn Oswald (hitter, of Langhorne). From my interactions and conversations with these three women over the summer, they will be the backbone of the team,” McKeon said.

The coach continued, “My understanding is that Hannah is a fantastic leader both on and off the court. She has been instrumental in helping me build connections with the other athletes over the summer and has already been leading by example by being the first to turn in preseason paperwork.

“After my conversation with Coryn this summer, I can tell she is not only passionate about the game but seems eager to put her skills to work as a top athlete in our program.

“Cheyenne seems to bring stability and confidence to the team. I am looking forward to working with them all.”

As of a week ago, the team had just seven players at it prepped for its Saturday, Sept. 4, nonconference opener at Albright College, but McKeon noted “with the commitment I have seen from these women already, I know we will make our small, but mighty team successful this season.

“The PCT women’s volleyball team was hit hard … in the last few years, and most recently (by) COVID-19. However, our focus this year will be on team dynamics, establishing an elite athlete mindset and core values that I hope will build momentum in the next few years to entice more D-III athletes to our program.

“(We have a) very young team. I am looking for the development of strong team dynamics and individual commitment to the process of developing an elite athlete mindset. Mental attitude is where most athletes are weakest and I plan for that to be the main focus of our season.

“We will be working with a group called Sweethearts and Heroes who will be conducting weekly meetings and will be leading us through the Mental Performance Mastery for Athletes course by Brian Cain. I have been through the course this summer, and I can tell you it has already made huge improvements in my own mindset. I know it is going to help these women to excel on and off the court.”

McKeon said she believes in coaching the whole athlete not just the sport, adding that she supports her players on and off the court.

“I believe my job as a coach is to help student-athletes navigate the challenges they face in the classroom, on the court and in life while using volleyball as the avenue to cultivate their success,” she said.

SCHEDULES/RECORDS/RESULTS
Men’s soccer
UEC: 0-0
Overall: 0-0
Wednesday, Sept. 1 – at Keystone College, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 4 – vs. Wilson College at Frederick, Md., 1 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 5 – vs. Hood College at Frederick, Md., 1 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 7 – host Alfred State College, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 11 – at Shenandoah University, 2 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 14 – at Albright College, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 18 – host Lancaster Bible College (UEC), 1 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 19 – at Penn State Harrisburg (UEC), 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 21 – at Keuka College, 4 p.m.

Women’s soccer
UEC: 0-0
Overall: 0-0
Wednesday, Sept. 1 – at King’s College, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 8 – host Keuka College, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 10 – host Keystone College, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 15 – at Lycoming College, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 18 – host Lancaster Bible College (UEC), 3 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 19 – at Penn State Harrisburg (UEC), 5 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 22 – Alfred State College, 7 p.m.

Men’s cross-country
Wednesday, Sept. 1 – at Misericordia Invitational, 6 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 11 – at LVC Dutchmen Invitational, 9 a.m.
Saturday, Sept. 25 – at Dickinson Long/Short Invitational, 10:30 a.m.

Women’s cross-country
Wednesday, Sept. 1 – at Misericordia Invitational, 6 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 11 – at LVC Dutchmen Invitational, 9 a.m.
Saturday, Sept. 25 – at Dickinson Long/Short Invitational, 10:30 a.m.

Women’s volleyball
UEC: 0-0
Overall: 0-0
Saturday, Sept. 4 – at Albright College triangular vs. Albright College, noon; vs. Gwynedd Mercy University, 2 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 7 – host Lycoming College, 7 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 13 – at Keystone College, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 17 – host Alfred State College, 7 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 20 – at Alfred State College, 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 28 – at Penn State Altoona, 7 p.m.

Men’s tennis
Overall: 0-0
Thursday, Sept. 9 – vs. Lycoming College at Brandon Park, 3 p.m.

Women’s tennis
Overall: 0-0
Thursday, Sept. 9 – vs. Lycoming College at Brandon Park, 3 p.m.

Golf
Tuesday, Sept. 14 – at Elizabethtown Invitational
Thursday, Sept. 23 – at Penn State Hazleton
Monday, Oct. 16 – at Lebanon Valley Invitational

For more about the United East, visit the conference website.

For additional information, visit the Wildcat Athletics website.

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