PHILADELPHIA - Like all the Ivy League programs, the University of Pennsylvania women’s soccer team started its season two weeks behind the rest of the country. In the past, the Quakers tried to couch things by scheduling a few weaker opponents during the first few weeks.
Not second-year head coach Nicole Van Dyke. She decided to put her team’s feet right into the fire against one of traditional powers in the sport, the University of Maryland.
Early returns weren’t promising. In fact, less than 12 minutes in the Terrapins led, 2-0.
Penn would right itself, however. The Quakers would end up outshooting the Terps on the day, 12-5, and got one of the goals back before ultimately falling 3-1 on that opening day.
Afterward, Maryland coach Ray Leone -- who knows a thing or two about Ivy women’s soccer from his recent stint as Harvard’s head coach -- was effusive in his praise.
“That is going to be a really good team,” he said.
Despite a youth movement, Penn did nothing to diminish those early words.
Amazingly, following that season-opening loss more than two months would pass before the Quakers -- with freshman Kitty Qu in the cage -- gave up another goal in the run of play, totaling more than 1,350 minutes of match action. When the year was over, Penn was 14th nationally in goals-against average, allowing just 10 goals which was the third-fewest in a season in program history. Along the way, the Red and Blue posted eight shutouts.
At the other end, a balanced attack saw 12 different women score as Penn finished the season with 31 goals, the most in one season since 2011 and 12 more than the team netted in each of the previous two campaigns.
It was a recipe that landed the Quakers at 9-3-4 overall, the three losses being the fourth-fewest in a season in the program’s 26-year history. In Ivy play, Penn scrapped its way to a 2-2-3 mark, with the two losses coming in hard-luck fashion – a controversial penalty kick in a 1-0 loss to eventual champion Harvard, and a 1-0 loss to runner-up Columbia in the final minute of overtime.
Penn has now had 20 straight seasons with a winning record. In fact, after starting its existence with four-straight sub-.500 records from 1991-94, the Quakers have finished 21 of the last 22 seasons above the .500 mark.
“As a staff, we are incredibly proud of our team, as we accomplished some great things,” said Van Dyke, who has seen her team outshoot its opponent 25 times in 32 matches during her brief tenure in University City. “Their commitment and dedication, both individually and collectively, could be seen from the moment they set foot on campus in August. Winning an Ivy League title and competing in the NCAA Championship will always be our goal, and while we did not achieve that this season, we made drastic improvements both in conference and out of conference. From the final minute of our last game, this team already has its sights set on what more we can do in 2017.”
Despite its relative youth, this team was resilient. In the three Ivy League draws, all of which ended 1-1, Penn gave up the first goal but collected itself and pulled level. The Quakers also went 5-0-2 in seven road matches. Not bad for a team that had eight freshmen and sophomores start at least nine matches apiece.
Along the way, there were plenty of highlights. The Quakers rebounded from their loss to the Crimson -- which opened the Ivy campaign -- with a 5-0 win at Cornell that was the second-largest Ivy win in program history. The Red and Blue scored at least four goals three other times against non-conference opponents, marking the first time since 2007 a Penn women’s soccer team scored at least four goals in four separate matches.
The program will certainly miss this year’s graduating seniors. Olivia Blaber, goalkeeper Carrie Crook, Paige Lombard, Tahirih Nesmith, Lindsey Sawczuk and Riann Winget will leave Penn as the first class to go unbeaten over four years against arch-rival Princeton (2 wins, 2 ties).
Lombard’s career should certainly be noted. A transfer from the University of Miami, she missed the 2014 season due to a preseason injury but more than made up for it over the last two seasons. An anchor on the defense for her entire time wearing the Red and Blue, she was a 2016 second-team All-Region pick by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA); earned first-team All-Ivy both years; and one of 30 candidates nationally for the prestigious Senior CLASS Award this season.
Freshman Emily Sands joined Lombard in earning first-team All-Ivy honors from the Ancient Eight coaches, while freshman Emma Loving and sophomore Allie Trzaska received honorable mention recognition.
If the fact that three of Penn’s All-Ivy players were either freshmen or sophomores isn’t enough to excite fans, there is plenty more. The Quakers’ leading goal-scorer in 2016 was a freshman (Loving, with six). Two players topped the team in points, one a freshman (Sands) and the other a sophomore (Sasha Stephens). Overall, Penn returns women who scored 22 of the team’s 31 goals this season. The defense, meanwhile, loses Lombard and Nesmith, but a nice nucleus returns with Qu fronted by a pair of sophomore two-year starters in Romie Boyd and Cami Nwokedi. Overall, the players expected to return in 2017 played a staggering 80 percent of the minutes in 2016.