Every season in every sport a team will face changes. Tremendous student-athletes come and go four years later. But a true testament of a team is not to replace those players or count themselves out but to have the ability to carry on with a mission, with a goal, regardless of who is on the playing field.
The University of Pennsylvania women’s soccer team had nine seniors who brought tremendous success to the program graduate. However, the 2005 version of the Quakers is ready to carry the torch and remain a top-three team in the Ivy League and battle with some of the best in the nation.
“The spring gave us the confidence that we can play,” Head Coach Darren Ambrose said. “We have a good group coming back that began to show a lot of confidence and began to step up last season.
“We are not going to rely just on one person,” he continued. “I think the squad is excited at the fact that this is a whole team effort and we are looking for contributions from everyone.”
Jess Keeley will return to the starting role in between the pipes for the Red and Blue. Keeley started the first four games of the season against some of the toughest competition in the country, including the College of Charleston, Texas A&M and Villanova. She posted a 1.72 goals against average on the year with 30 saves and a shutout against Vanderbilt. Keeley appeared in seven games during the year, with five starts.
After missing the 2004 season due to injury, sophomore Jacquelyn McNaughton will also see some minutes in net. McNaughton played for two seasons at St. Francis High School in her native California, before transferring to the Pendleton School and playing at the IMG Academy in Florida.
Penn prides itself on fielding a solid defensive unit and this season will not be any different.
“We have three-quarters of our back four returning and they’ve all had a lot of experience. I think our back line will again be the strongest part of our team,” Ambrose said.
Last season the Red and Blue defense helped hold opponents to 20 goals (1.12 per game) and 95 shots on goal during the year.
Two-time first-team All-Ivy defender Robin Watson returns for her final season and will anchor the backline. Watson has started in all 51 games during her career and will captain the squad for her second season. She even got into the mix on the offensive end scoring three goals and tallying an assist.
“Robin is a very consistent player and is a great leader on and off the field,” Ambrose said. “She plays with tremendous passion and we expect nothing less from her.”
Joining Watson in the backfield is junior Megan Boys and sophomore Ashley Hull. Boys appeared in 15 games, starting 10 contests, while Hull checked into 15 games with eight starts.
“Meg has quietly put herself into a good position in the back. She’s great with the ball, makes good decisions and is great in the air,”Ambrose said. “Ashley got great experience last season and we will look to her to increase her role in our back line.”
Another option in the backfield is senior Jen Price, who is coming off a solid spring season. Junior Meredith Mayo may also see time on the defensive end.
With the combination of the returnees and a trio of newcomers in Ellen Gregory, Eileen Larkin and Nicki White, the backline will be tough. Gregory is coming off a senior season in which she was named a high school All-American and Kentucky State Player of the Year. She may also see time up front. Larkin, a natural lefty, is a strong outside back that hails from Troy, Mich., where she helped her team to four-straight district and three-straight regional titles. White, a local product from West Chester, Pa., is a very versatile, technical player who grasps the tactical side of the game and may also be used in the midfield.
The spring season showed that the midfield once again will be solid with three key returnees and a considerable amount of depth.
“Our midfield will be deep this year with many players offering different strengths,” Ambrose said. “We expect each combination will make an impact during the season.”
Junior Tracy Bienenfeld is an important piece to the midfield puzzle. She will be counted on to maintain consistency and composure in the middle that the Quakers have shown over the years. Bienenfeld saw significant minutes in all 17 games, starting two contests and tallying an assist.
Senior Meg Pittman, who spent the summer studying and playing soccer in Argentina, returns along with sophomore Jenna Mitby. Pittman appeared in eight games, tallying one goal, while Mitby roamed the midfield in 13 games and posted five shots.
Rookie Natalie Capuano will also join the Red and Blue midfield. Capuano is an experienced and very tough player from Aston, Pa., where she played for the regional Olympic Development Program (ODP) and the Philadelphia Strikers that won numerous state championships. Capuano’s former Strikers teammate Nicki White also has the potential to step right into the Quakers midfield this fall.
Sophomore Rachel Fletcher, who logged heavy minutes on the defensive side of the field last season, will move into the midfield and may see time at forward, a position she played with her Colorado Rush club team. Fletcher saw time in 13 games, starting seven of those contests.
The Quakers lost most of their front line Devon Sibole, Rachelle Snyder and Katy Cross but there is another Cross in the Red and Blue line-up that has been a sleeper.
Senior Carolyn Cross has quietly etched a solid career, scoring 12 goals and five assists in three seasons. She was a major contributor last year netting four goals and dishing out two assists.
“Carolyn is a great finisher and technically one of the best players we have up top,” Ambrose said. “We expect her to carry most of the load this season and have the confidence in her that she will be able to do so.”
Joining Cross up front will be Jenna Linden. The senior played in 16 games, starting seven contests and recorded a goal and an assist. She leads all active players with 13 career assists, a mark which ties her with Jill Callaghan for sixth in the Penn record books.
“Jenna had a great spring and has had a lot of experience,”Ambrose said. “She’s a very creative player who has the ability to find players in dangerous areas of the field but this year we also need her to be more selfish around the goal.”
Sophomore Ashley Wallach and junior Erica Messina will bring a tremendous amount of quickness to the front line. Wallach appeared in 10 games and made her presence known on the field. Her first collegiate goal was a big one, as she netted the double overtime game-winner against La Salle on Sept. 29.
“Ashley is very capable and showed that she can cause trouble for opponents,” Ambrose said. “We are very happy to get Erica back from injury last season and are looking forward to getting her back on the field.”
Newcomers Tory Tripp and Molly Weir will also challenge for time up front. Tripp, a native of Portland, Ore., is a strong target forward with a solid work ethic that always gets involved in the game. Weir, a native of Gaithersburg, Md., moves off the ball well and can play up front or wide in the middle.
Penn’s schedule will again be highly competitive as its faces teams from some of the toughest conferences in the country. The Quakers also have a favorable 10 home games, beginning with Rider on Sept. 4.
“Being home so much plays into our favor somewhat, but we still have to win those games,”Ambrose said. “Like last season, our early season games will test us and prepare us for the Ivy slate.”
The Red and Blue will face NCAA Tournament participant Arizona and West Coast Conference foe Loyola-Marymount at the Princeton Invitational followed by home match-ups against La Salle, NC State and George Mason. The Quakers will also travel to NCAA Tournament participant Loyola on Sept. 28.
The Ancient Eight yielded three College Cup participants in Harvard, Yale and Princeton in 2004. Ivy League play begins on Sept. 24 as the Quakers head to Cambridge, Mass. to take on the Crimson. Penn will host the Elis on Oct. 22 and conclude the season on Nov. 5 on Rhodes Field against College Cup semifinalist Princeton.
“There really isn’t an easy game in the League,” Ambrose said. “Rarely is a game decided by more than a goal and this season will be no exception.”
The Quakers possess the talent, desire and depth to take on the top-teams in the country and in the Ancient Eight. While some big names have been lost, the goals and the expectations remain the same.
“This is by no means a rebuilding year,” Ambrose said. “We’re going to keep on running in our push to an Ivy title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament. We have the players, we just need the experience.”
From the first horn of the season to the last, Penn is committed to the battle in an ever-competitive world of collegiate soccer and will not back down to any opponent.
“We know that to be in the hunt down the stretch, we have to play well all year. Consistency is crucial if we are to going to make a run this year,” Ambrose said. “At the end of the day, we want to be in control of our own fate come November.”
With such focus there is no telling how far the Red and Blue will go in 2005.
-Written by Kelly McCarthy, athletic communications assistant