PHILADELPHIA - When Penn women’s soccer coach Darren Ambrose surveys his team these days at preseason practices, it does not take long.
A litany of injuries -- some prior to preseason, and a few during these last few days -- has left his squad short-sided heading into this weekend’s first matches, against Saint Louis and Robert Morris. However, after a 5-0 thumping of George Mason in a preseason exhibition, Ambrose understands that while he may not have quantity on his roster, he most certainly has quality.
“Overall I have been very happy with preseason,” he said. “Obviously we have had some injuries that have been disappointing, most prominently the knee injury suffered by one of our captains, Nicki White. But the players who are healthy are getting toward game shape, and we consider it a successful preseason in that we have gotten some things in place.
“Our attack has gotten a lot better,” he continued. “Last year, I thought we had a lot of individual success, but it was never a truly coordinated effort. So far this season, our offensive players seem to be playing together a lot better and are developing a better understanding of one another.
“We lost a lot on defense, especially with Nicki’s injury, so we are rebuilding a bit in the back. I am interested to see how we respond back there. But overall, I think we are clicking on a higher level a little sooner than we have the last few years. We will need that this weekend.”
They sure will. The Quakers kick off with Saint Louis University Friday night at Rhodes Field, hosting a Billikens club that has advanced to the second round of the NCAA College Cup each of the last two years. Last year, SLU went 15-4-2 overall and won the Atlantic 10 with a 7-2-0 mark.
“Friday will be the first game for both teams, so obviously there will be a lot of excitement around it,” said Ambrose. “They are an athletic team, and we will get a good sense of where we stand on the national level right away. I expect them to test our back line and goalkeeper, and at the other end we have to see if we can break down a good team with our offense.”
Following that, the Quakers host Robert Morris Sunday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. (changed from its original 1 p.m. kickoff). Penn drubbed the Colonials last year, 6-0, in a game that was shortened to 72 minutes because of extreme weather. Ambrose does not expect a similar result this time.
“Robert Morris has a lot to prove after last year’s match,” he said. “They have a lot of motivation coming in. We have to hope that our kids are mature enough to realize that last year was last year, and this year is a whole new deal. We cannot rely on last year’s result to get us through Sunday’s game.”
Some notes heading into the weekend...
Penn and Saint Louis are meeting for just the second time in women’s soccer; the first came at the 2003 Princeton Invitational, where they played to a 1-1 tie.
Penn and Robert Morris are also meeting for just the second time, following last year’s 6-0 Quaker win on a rain-soaked Rhodes Field. Jessica Fuccello came off the bench to score twice, while Mara Fintzi had a goal and an assist and Natalie Capuano also scored.
A reminder that Sunday’s Penn-RMU match has a new start time of 5:30 p.m.
Penn returns 12 letterwinners for 2007, including seven field players who started at least 10 matches last season and a pair of goalies who made at least seven starts.
Penn’s first foe this season is a formidable one; Saint Louis has advanced to the NCAA College Cup second round each of the last two seasons.
All of the nine aforementioned players were freshmen or sophomores last year. In addition, another rising sophomore, Mara Fintzi, started eight matches last year as a freshman.
Penn finished with a winning record last year (8-5-3), the 10th straight year that has happened; the Quakers have never had a losing record under eighth-year head coach Darren Ambrose.
Penn allowed just 14 goals in 16 matches last season (0.84 GAA), a total bettered only by the 2001 squad which allowed 13 goals in 18 matches en route to the Ivy League title.
The Quakers had four All-Ivy players last season, all of whom were underclassmen; three return for 2007. Junior Natalie Capuano was a first-team honoree, while sophomores Jessica Fuccello and Jess Rothenheber were second-team selections. Junior Nicki White was also a second-team selection, but she will miss the 2007 season after tearing her ACL in preseason practice.
Capuano spent part of the spring and summer working out with the United States Under-21 National Team; she made her first international appearance in April, at the 2007 Futbol Internacional Championship in Alabama, and scored her first international goal during a competition in Germany.
Fuccello made quite an impression as a freshman, scoring nine goals and dishing off five assists for a team-high 23 points; her point total is tied for sixth on Penn’s single-season list, while her nine goals are seventh on the single-season list.
The defense will be anchored by junior Eileen Larkin, who joins Capuano as a captain. Larkin has started 30 of 33 matches since she arrived on campus.
In goal, there is plenty of competition. Sophomore Cailly Carroll started nine matches and had a 0.96 goals-against average in 11 appearances (940 minutes), while classmate Sara Rose started the other seven matches and had a 0.64 GAA in 560 minutes.
Freshman Kaitlin Campbell was a member of Eastern Pennsylvania’s national championship ODP team in March; the head coach of that team was Darren Ambrose.