ON THE PLAQUE: A captain of both teams her senior year, she was recipient of the Julie Staver Award in 1990. In field hockey, she was a catalyst to Penn’s Ivy League title and run to the NCAA semifinals at Franklin Field in 1988 and then earned All-America recognition a year later. She also received first-team All-Ivy honors both her junior and senior campaigns, was the team’s MVP in 1989, and earned its Most Inspirational award in 1987. In lacrosse, she was a two-time first-team All-Ivy selection.
Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 10, 2017
When the fall semester began in 1988, Donna Mulhern Woodruff C’90 GEd’00 believed the Penn field hockey team had a chance to be pretty good. She also was well aware that the NCAA championship rounds would be held in the team’s home at Franklin Field that year.
Even still, setting the goal of making the Final Four almost seemed too ambitious for a program that had never before reached that point.
“I don’t think there was anyone sitting there saying, ‘Yeah that’s we’re going to do,’” Woodruff recalled. “On the flip side, I think we all knew we had a talented group of student-athletes. You never know in sports, but I don’t think you start thinking about Final Fours and stuff.”
In some ways, that made the Quakers’ run even more special as they stunned the field hockey community with an Ivy League championship, a memorable 2-1 overtime win over rival Penn State in its first NCAA Tournament game and, yes, a spot in the Final Four in their home stadium.
“It really doesn’t work out any better,” said Woodruff, who was named to the NCAA All-Tournament team. “That was pretty great.”
Even though the Quakers lost in the semifinals to powerhouse Old Dominion, that Penn field hockey team remains etched in program lore as the only one to reach the national semifinals. And Woodruff—one of this year’s inductees into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame—was a big reason why, anchoring the defense with the kind of steady leadership she also brought to the lacrosse field as a two-sport college star.
“In the Final Four, we had to defend a lot because we were far and away the underdogs.” said Carrie (Vesely) Horrigan C’90, who played lacrosse and field hockey with her for all four years. “Donna played sweeper and was always just so steady and solid. You didn’t have to worry. When the ball went down near here, you knew she would get it and do the right thing.”
Few people knew Woodruff better than Horrigan, who not only played two sports with her but also lived with her throughout college. Before that, the two played three sports against each other at nearby high schools in the Philadelphia suburbs—Woodruff at Marple Newtown, Horrigan at Haverford—and were on the same field hockey travel team.
“It was much better to be on her team than going against her,” Horrigan said. “She was the best kind of teammate you could ever want. And the same with being a roommate and the same with being a friend, as well. It didn’t matter what you were doing—she was totally reliable and rock steady.”
When Woodruff and Horrigan were freshmen, along with another rising star in Ellen (Vagelos) Masseur C’90, the field hockey team took its first big step to win the Ivy League title and earn the automatic bid to the 1986 NCAA tournament. But the Quakers lost their opening-round game to Rutgers on penalty strokes, then sputtered to a 7-8 season the next year.
Despite the losing record, the underclassmen grew a lot during the 1987 season. Then they bonded even more when, the following summer, the team went on an international trip to The Netherlands, where field hockey is one of the country’s biggest sports. While there, the Penn athletes played in a tournament against some club teams, which Woodruff recalled were mixed with anyone from 16-year-olds to 40-year olds, all of whom just “strolled out onto the field and were as talented as anything.” But the Quakers held their own.
“Because we got so much playing time as sophomores, that was the start of gelling into a team that had success our junior year,” Woodruff said. “And I cannot downplay how important the international trip was.”
Woodruff remembers the University rallying behind the field hockey program during the team's Final Four run in 1988, during which the Quakers won a program-record 14 games. And Penn was able to sustain that momentum in 1989, going 12-4-1 and returning to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in Woodruff’s four years.
In all, Penn went 45-19-2 during her college career, including a 17-6-1 mark in the Ivies, while Woodruff was named honorable mention All-American in 1989 and first team All-Ivy in ’88 and ’89.
“She was one of those people who gave her heart and soul to the team,” said Masseur, who served as tri-captain of the field hockey team her senior year along with Woodruff and Horrigan. “And she was the heart and soul of the team.”
Masseur remembers Woodruff having a “natural defensive instinct” but also an effective flick shot that she was able to lift over the goalkeeper on penalty corners for the occasional goal. As for the “in-charge personality” that Masseur said she had? That extended beyond game action. Once, when teammate Rosemarie McElwee C’90 was at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to undergo surgery, Woodruff organized the entire team to gather at the one corner of Franklin Field where McElwee could see them from a window and wave.
“I thought that was a real nice thing to do,” Masseur said. “She was a thoughtful teammate, thoughtful player, and one of my best friends at Penn.”
Masseur also marveled at how Woodruff managed to play another sport in the spring, commenting that “it’s a full-time job when you’re a Division I college athlete and she was doing it twice over.” And she was good at it too with Horrigan saying, “I think she was a better lacrosse player than hockey player.”
Now the University’s most consistently dominant program, the Penn women’s lacrosse team didn’t have as much success back then, going 20-29 during her four years. But Woodruff, who was first-team All-Ivy in 1989 and 1990, still relishes a “huge win” over a powerhouse Princeton team as she helped grow the program.
Nowadays, she loves seeing the women’s lacrosse program become a mainstay in the NCAA Championship field while also enjoying the field hockey program’s surge toward the top of the Ivies (with a new stadium, Ellen Vagelos C’90 Field, that was made possible by one of her old teammates). She does more than just watch the success, though. Woodruff is a part of it, currently serving as chair of the Penn Field Hockey alumni board.
“When you come out of a program, you certainly want to see it continue to do well,” she said. “Selfishly, you want to have the greatest experience while you’re there. But the truth is, for the rest of your life, you will be associated with those programs.”
Considering her devotion to Penn and to sports, it was only fitting that she remained in the field, even beside her work on the field hockey alumni board. She played a little bit more field hockey after graduating, going with Horrigan to England to find a competitive league (Horrigan ended up staying and still lives there today). She then became an assistant field hockey coach at Penn in 1991 before assuming a dual role as an athletic administrator for the University. She went on to take on administrative roles at Villanova and now Stony Brook, where she is currently the deputy director of athletics.
And the journey was all made possible because of how it began at Franklin Field.
“I’ve been in athletics forever at this point,” she said. “And so much of it is obviously predicated on the good experience I had as a student-athlete.”