UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – With a competitive non-conference schedule and an upcoming in-state rivalry game, the Penn State men’s soccer team has been testing themselves throughout the season. Although the Nittany Lions have yet to play a Big Ten team, head coach Jeff Cook emphasized the importance of testing yourself early in the season.
“I think it’s much more important than any ranking,” said Cook. “At this stage of the season, in my opinion, as a team, as coaches we need to find out what our strengths are and we need to find out maybe where some of our vulnerabilities are so that we can prepare for the conference games.”
Coach Cook also believes that challenging yourself is a way to reach goals as a program.
“Our goal here at Penn State with our men’s soccer program, like so many of our athletic programs if not probably all of them, is we strive to compete for championships, we strive to do well in the classrooms, and we try to be one of the outstanding programs in the entire country. To do that you have to test yourself against really strong opposition.”
Testing yourself is nothing new to Cook. All through his career, he has always believed in this philosophy. He also finds it’s not just him who possesses this value, it is the players as well.
“Throughout my career, when I had my first head coaching job at the University of Cincinnati and then Dartmouth, I felt that players want to test themselves against the very best. That’s their desire.”
Junior midfielder Liam Butts is one of those players who have this desire. He feels with the challenging schedule the Nittany Lions have this season, testing himself will allow for growth as a player.
“It’s just nice to be playing against the best competition in the nation because obviously individually and as a team you want to get better,” said Butts. “So just playing the best competition all the time helps me see what I need to work on and improve on for a successful postseason.”
The Nittany Lions are set to face their next challenging test, the 15th-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers on Monday, September 13th. The last time these two teams met was in fall of 2019, where the Nittany Lions took down the Panthers, 3-1. Since then, Pitt had success in the 2020 NCAA College Cup Tournament but lost in the semifinals to Indiana.
Junior midfielder Andrew Privett is ready to take on the Panthers.
“In-state rivals are always massive games,” Privett said. “To take on Pitt who we’ve had a history with, they were in the NCAA Tournament and went deep last year, so there’s a ton to play for ranking wise and just bragging rights as well.”
But this game is more important than an in-state rivalry, bragging rights, and a tough opponent – it is a way for the Nittany Lions to test themselves before heading into conference games. Butts, who scored a goal against Pitt in the fall of 2019, believes this upcoming game will be a great test for the team.
“I think it will honestly be an amazing test,” said Butts. “To play a team that’s of super high quality and has talent like they do I think it will be a really good indication of how we’re gonna do in the Big Ten, so if we can have a solid performance and go into the Big Ten firing, I think we’re gonna have a lot of success coming up.”
Not only is Butts ready for the test against the Panthers, but he is also looking forward to the excitement of playing at Jeffrey Field and showing off the team’s talent.
“Honestly I’m super excited. We beat them my freshman year so just to be able to play at Jeffery again with the fan turnout we have had recently I’m just really excited,” said Butts. “They’re a great team and I think we can show our quality on a national stage and really show what our team has to offer.”
Cook also feels the fan turnout will help create the right atmosphere for this televised in-state rivalry game.
“I’m really delighted with the support we’ve had and the energy and I want everyone to know that it actually does make a difference. It’s not just a cliche or something to be nice,” said Cook. “The energy, it lifts the players and I think we want to create a very raucous, intimidating, of course fair environment but one that’s got tons of energy and excitement.”
At the end of the day, win or lose, this game will allow Cook and the men’s soccer team to continue to work towards their season goal of self-improvement.
“This year is very challenging, the games are coming quickly one after the other, but we also feel we have the depth and the experience and the quality in our team to handle it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we are going to win every game, but I think our goal is to continue to improve our performances and find out how we can become the best version of ourselves for this season.”