PHILADELPHIA - When you start as many freshmen and sophomores as the Penn women’s soccer team did in 2006, you are bound to have ups and downs.
The 2006 Quakers were defined by their youth-- only two seniors (Megan Boys and Tracy Bienenfeld) were part of the regular rotation, and the only juniors in the mix were Ashley Hull and Rachel Fletcher (before an injury sidelined her for the final five matches of the season).
That said, head coach Darren Ambrose was pleased with his team’s performance. The Quakers finished the season with an 8-5-3 record.
“The results we had this year were not because we weren’t a good team,” he said. “I think we had inexperience, and a lot of the younger players had trouble finding that next gear when we got into Ivy League play (Penn went 1-4-2 in the League). We got some wins early on that may have given our players a false sense of security, and then when we got into league play it was a whole different game and they were not immediately ready for it. But they grew up a lot in the last couple of weeks.
“Our record is our legacy, and that is unfortunate,” he continued. “Anyone who saw us play, especially in the second half of the season, would say that we had a good team this year.”
Adding a burden to Penn’s youth were a litany of injuries that depleted the starting 11 down the stretch. Marisa Stock, last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year in New Jersey, was expected to contribute right away but went down early in the season with a knee injury; and Fletcher was joined on the sideline by Michelle Drugan, another freshman who had established herself in the lineup before missing a key portion of the Ivy season.
“The injuries definitely hurt us,” acknowledged Ambrose.
Penn got off to a quick start in 2006, tying Rice-- a 2005 NCAA College Cup participant-- and then ripping off four-straight wins. The highlight came at the Penn Invitational, when the Quakers knocked off Hofstra, 1-0, and then Richmond, 2-1, in overtime.
Reality sank in with consecutive losses against Temple (2-0) and Harvard (2-1). The Quakers lost both despite outshooting both the Owls, 21-3, and the Crimson, 17-12.
Wins against Cornell and Lafayette-- the win over the Leopards was spurred by Molly Weir’s hat trick-- was followed by a 1-0 loss to a Columbia team that would go on to win the Ivy League title. Penn again responded, annihilating Robert Morris, 6-0, to improve to 7-3-1 on the season.
Unfortunately, the iron of the Ivies was still to come, and although Penn’s play picked up noticeably, the results did not necessarily bear that out. The Quakers went on the road and were dropped by nationally ranked Dartmouth, 1-0; took on a highly skilled Yale team in New Haven, Conn., and salvaged a 0-0 draw; showed great fortitude in erasing a two-goal deficit in the final 10 minutes against Brown and getting a 2-2 tie; and then losing at Princeton, 2-0, despite matching the Tigers in the shot column (10-10).
The only win in that final stretch came out of conference, a 4-1 win over La Salle.
“When I think about the season, a couple of games come to mind,” said Ambrose. “I felt like the Brown game was a microcosm of our season-- we started slowly, and they jumped all over us. Once we sorted ourselves out, though, we played great. It showed that when we put the foot on the gas, we could really hold the play in a match.
“The Yale game was also a defining match for us,” he continued. “I think most of the players agree that was the game where we showed our highest level of intensity and competition. It was the match that showed a lot of them what could happen when they brought their play to the level necessary to get the result.”
On an individual level, there were several standouts. Two that immediately come to mind are the play up front by freshman Jessica Fuccello and the play in the backfield. Fuccello finished the year with nine goals and five assists for 23 points, and established herself as a legitimate threat while earning second-team All-Ivy. At the other end, the defense allowed just 14 goals in 16 matches, and pitched seven shutouts.
“What more can you say about Jessica?” said Ambrose. “She scored nine goals, and could have had a lot more. She suffered a little bit from being a freshman, especially early on, but she picked it up as she went along. She showed that, when she puts her mind to it, she can be a force offensively. If she becomes a little more consistent in front of the goal, she will become a dominant scorer for us.
“The back line (Boys, Bienenfeld, Ashley Hull, Eileen Larkin and second-team All-Ivy pick Nicki White) was outstanding this year. You look at the goals we gave up, and a lot of them were just great goals. I felt like we never self-destructed. In the goal, we had a pair of freshmen (Cailly Carroll and Sara Rose) and they surprised us with their level of play. There were no glaring errors on a consistent basis, which you expect for newcomers in that spot. It ended up not being a concern of ours.”
In the middle of the field, the Quakers were lifted by a pair of All-Ivy players in Natalie Capuano (who also earned All-Region honors from the NSCAA) and Jess Rothenheber. The good news for Ambrose is that he has that combination for two more years.
“With Natalie, you get everything she can give every day,” said Ambrose. “The presence she brings to the field that is how we want to be defined. She is a great role model for everyone; she plays with fire and aggression, but is also composed.
“Jess is so gifted and skillful,” he continued. “I feel like we have just scratched the surface with her; her stats this year (2 goals, 2 assists) did not justify the impact she had on matches. This team will take off as she continues to grow as a player.”
Most teams are ready for the season to be over after a difficult campaign such as the one Penn had in 2006. However, Ambrose looks at his charges and the progress they made in the final few weeks, and he knows brighter days are ahead.
“I wish we were back on the field next week,” he said. “In meeting with the players, the sense I get is that they see the ability they have, soccer-wise and athletically, and they want to apply themselves on a more consistent basis. The difference between good and great is a little extra effort; we are good, but now we want the players to put their mind to it to become great.
“What the players learned is that they cannot cruise and get by on their talent and abilities,” he continued. “It is not necessarily about playing good soccer; it’s about competing. A lot of them did not realize the intensity needed for an Ivy match.
“At the end of the season I was disappointed with our record, but certainly not with our team. I am excited about what lies ahead. A lot of these women came to Penn from successful high school and club programs, and they are not used to losing. They know they need to make changes, and I am confident they will do that.”