Penn State hits an impressively difficult preseason stretch Friday, when the Nittany Lions take on St. Mary’s in Moraga, Calif. They’ll then face Cal on Monday and Life on March 16.
“We’re looking for some solid competition to prepare ourselves for the season. You’re hard pressed to find a better match of quality opponents in quality environments,” said Penn State coach Don Ferrell.
“Coming from State College, it’s pretty cold and crappy right now. We figured we wanted to play some of the best teams in some good weather to get ready for the season and measure ourselves outside of the conference.”
St. Mary’s, who has been pummeling teams in the California Conference, is eager to run out against some fresh competition in Penn State. They do so just a day before playing Santa Clara in a conference contest.
“Over a 10-year span, Penn State has been probably the most consistent of all the schools in the East,” said Gaels coach Tim O’Brien. “Army’s been great, but Penn State’s been one of those teams. We’re really looking forward to it.”
Penn State has been a young team the last couple of years and a program on the bubble of being considered elite for longer than that. Ferrell hopes the changes he's made can push his team over the hump.
“We changed up our strength and conditioning program. We’ve been changing it over the last, probably two years, now. It’s in full swing and I’m seeing some benefits of that,” he said. “We regularly play some Academy sides – Navy, Army – and if you’re able to hang with them in the second half I think that your fitness is on the right track.
“We’ve been looking at recruiting athletes. We found that we had some real good rugby players, some real good guys that played hard and gave you everything they had. But the nature of the beast is you put an athlete up against that really hard worker, really good rugby player, and the athlete takes him one-on-one 8-of-10 times. You’re seeing a lot better athletes coming through high school rugby these days. A lot of kids are staying with the rugby path.”
Even with improved recruiting and training, the Nittany Lions will be considered underdogs against St. Mary’s, Life and Cal. Ferrell's OK with that.
“As far as wins and losses, it’s not important, it’s not what we’re looking for,” he said. “We’re coming out looking to compete, match these guys with their physicality, work on our pattern of play and we’re looking for performance. We have certain indicators that we’re looking for.”