Football isn't the only hot ticket in Happy Valley this fall.
The Penn State women's soccer team is once again nationally ranked and on the prowl for its first-ever NCAA title.
The Nittany Lions are the team to beat in the Big Ten, having won 10 straight conference championships, and this year they add a world-class element to their already-impressive history.
Head coach Erica Walsh recently returned from Beijing, where she served as an assistant coach for the USA National Team. They won Olympic gold with a 1-0 victory over Brazil, avenging a 4-0 loss to the Brazilians in the 2007 Women's World Cup semi-finals. That experience is serving Walsh well within her own Penn State program.
''First and foremost, we learned to deal with adversity,'' she said during a phone interview from her University Park office. "That team [USA] was faced with as many challenges as any team I've been a part of, down to losing our star, Abby Wambach, but being able to handle the pressure and bring home the gold, it was a dream come true.''
In her second season at the helm of the Nittany Lions, Walsh faces a brutal schedule, including a pair of nationally-televised outings this week. After a trip to high-powered James Madison Thursday, Penn State hosts second-ranked Notre Dame this weekend for a contest that will provide an important tune-up for Big Ten action.
"Notre Dame has shown they can compete with the best teams in the country,'' Walsh said.
But the Fighting Irish will have to contend with Penn State's electrifying home-field advantage. The Lions begin their day at Rec Hall where they board a big blue bus, just like the Penn State football squad, for the trek across campus. With team chants providing the background music, the bus pulls up to Jeffery Field, where young fans are running to the fence for their first glimpse of their blue-and-white-clad idols.
In addition to being a Big Ten and national power, the Penn State women are tremendous ambassadors for the sport of soccer. Admission to their games is free, and they routinely stay afterward to meet with youth squads, posing for photos, signing autographs, and simply spending time with aspiring young players. The Nittany Lions are wonderful role models, the epitome of student-athletes; last year's squad finished the academic year with a team GPA of more than 3.2.
"It's something we focus on in our recruiting,'' Walsh said. "Players who come here know they are expected to be involved in the community, and that community is a large part of our success.''
It's success Walsh knows the team and community would share with an upset win over Notre Dame Sunday at 1 p.m.
"Our team sets lofty goals, and right now our focus is not to talk about it, but to prepare for it every day.''
The Penn State women's soccer team will be a show worth watching all season long.
Kellie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.