The schedule says the Penn women’s soccer team is only six games into its season, but the Quakers are preparing to begin what amounts to a high-stakes, seven-game playoff.
Friday’s game against Harvard marks the beginning of Ivy League play, which will ultimately determine which team automatically advances to the NCAA tournament to represent the Ancient Eight.
The Quakers learned firsthand about the small margin of error in league play a season ago. Despite going undefeated in their final six conference games (in addition to four nonconference games), they still missed out on a tournament bid because of their lone league loss to eventual champion Harvard in the opening Ivy game.
“We’re really focusing on taking every [league] game like it’s the Ivy League championship game, because it takes one game to lose the title, and we learned that the hard way last season,” senior Erin Beck said.
But coach Darren Ambrose does not believe the margin for error is that slim.
“If we win on Friday, no one wins the league. If we lose on Friday, no one wins the league,” he said. “There are seven games and that’s the beauty of the Ivy League.”
Ambrose believes it is rare for a team to go unbeaten in the Ivy League and does not think it is necessary to take this year’s Ivy title. The last team before Harvard last year to go without a loss in the Ivies was Columbia in 2006.
Yet going undefeated was once almost a prerequisite for winning the Ivy League. Between 2003 and 2006, three out of four champions went undefeated. Only time will tell if Ambrose’s prediction is correct.
It may not be imperative to go undefeated, but expect a higher intensity from the Quakers on the pitch once Ivy play begins.
“There shouldn’t be, but I think that there is,” senior Sarah Banks said of the difference between non-conference and Ivy games. “We still want to win [every game], but for Ivy games, we definitely go in with a win-or-die attitude.”
Beck said Ivy games are more emotional because they see the same teams and players every year.
Penn also uses its opening non-conference schedule to iron out problems before Ivy play without dramatically hurting postseason chances.
“We’d like to win them all. We’d love to be 6-0 right now,” Ambrose said. “But I also think that when you play nonconference games, you’re doing it to test yourselves. You’re doing it to try things.”
Beck was more blunt.
“Moving into Ivies this weekend, we understand it’s about results now,” she said. “It’s not about learning.”
These growing pains may haunt the Quakers if they do not take the Ivy crown. This year’s squad, at 3-3, already has more losses than last year’s team and is likely out of contention for an at-large bid.
Not only did the Red and Blue finish with only a single Ivy loss last season, but their 5-1-1 Ivy record was better than their 2010 title-winning record of 4-1-2.
Ambrose is not one to admit that previous results have any effect going forward, but last season’s finish still resonates with the players.
“We did so well, and we came so close. We’re definitely all carrying that,” Banks said. “Things like that do happen. I think that’s part of why the league is so fun.
“One game makes or breaks you.”
TIM GHOSH is a junior finance and computer science major from Rochester, N.Y. He can be reached at dpsports@theDP.com.