Editor's note: Ivan Maisel has the latest from Penn State as the Nittany Lions prepare for their season opener versus Ohio.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Penn State football team began arriving at its warehouse-sized training facility at 6 a.m. Wednesday. The players came in 30-minute waves, although strength coach Craig Fitzgerald affords the seniors the luxury of sleeping in until 10 a.m.
Shortly after 7 a.m., a slight woman wearing coaching gear slipped in the front door to watch the Nittany Lions work. For the second time in three days, Erica Walsh, coach of the No. 9 Penn State women’s soccer team, and one of her assistants, Joel Bancroft, wanted to see how the football team works.
Walsh is in her 10th season as a collegiate head coach, her sixth at Penn State. She has won nearly two-thirds of her games (122-61-8, .660) and taken eight teams to the NCAA tournament. She has been an assistant coach on both the U.S. Olympic team (2008) and the U.S. World Cup team (2011). Yet she leapt at the opportunity to see how newbie head coach Bill O’Brien conducts his program.
Walsh and Bancroft attended practice Monday afternoon, despite being in the middle of their own season. The women’s soccer team is 3-1 this season. Walsh couldn’t have enjoyed watching it more had she been an NFL scout.
“Everything they do, they do with energy,” she said. “There’s obviously a clear direction and a sense of urgency. Coaches talk, and players listen. They are doing things the way they should be done. That’s not always easy at the college level. They’re still 19 [years old]. The injured players are still [attacking] their workouts. You notice how pissed off the players get at themselves. When they don’t do it right, the pursuit of excellence is still there.”
On Wednesday morning, Fitzgerald, with whom Walsh worked at Harvard in 2006, gave the soccer coaches a quick rundown on the Wednesday workout -- a light 90-minute workout, if there is such a thing.
“They should feel better when they walk out of here,” Fitzgerald told them. “This should not be too heavy so that they feel [badly] when they leave.”
The soccer coaches had less interest in how Fitzgerald put the workout together. They just wanted to watch the players work.
“Honestly, we wanted to see culture more than anything,” Bancroft said. “We feel we’re in a pretty good spot in regards to talent, as compared to the other top 10 or 15 programs. ... It’s the little things. When you have people over here putting the time in, we want to learn from everyone that we can. And we want to look at how they’re training, the equipment.”
The soccer coaches’ eyes lit up at the football program’s plyo boxes. In most gyms, a plyo box is a simple wooden box. Athletes jump onto it as a lower-body exercise. A tired jumper will slam his or her shins into the edge of the box. The football team’s plyo boxes are coated in rubber.
“Little things like that really make the difference,” Bancroft said.
The Penn State soccer program already has received a significant boost from the football program. When Fitzgerald came in this past January and ordered all new training equipment, some of the old equipment found its way to the soccer program’s training facility.