The Penn women’s soccer team will meet its maker when it travels to the West Coast to play California on Friday.
That’s because Cal associate head coach Patrick Baker was the head coach at Penn from 1994-98 and is responsible for building the then-fledgling program into what became an Ivy powerhouse for years to come.
When Baker took over, Penn’s women’s soccer team had won just nine games in the three seasons since its inception in 1991 and struggled to attract recruits while playing at Franklin Field.
In his first season, while the men called Rhodes Field home, the women played on Franklin Field’s AstroTurf, which posed a recruiting challenge for Baker.
“We had a number of recruits that year and had been afforded a little bit more money in the budget, so we were bringing people on campus, really getting after it,” he said. “And after the first two weekends, a number of the ladies went, ‘Listen, Penn is my top choice. I would love to play for you and for the Quakers, but there’s no way I’m going to spend my college career on AstroTurf.’”
So he took matters into his own hands, asking athletic director Steve Bilsky if the program could make the switch to a grass field “so that [they would] have some type of recruiting class.”
The move to Rhodes Field paid instant dividends for the Quakers, who celebrated their first winning season in 1995. Baker’s ’97 and ’98 squads went a combined 25-10-1, solidifying Penn women’s soccer as a program which had arrived. During his tenure at Penn, Baker earned a 42-37-5 record, won an ECAC Championship and was named the 1997 Mid-Atlantic Region Coach of the Year.
“We were copying a lot of things Fran Dunphy was doing with men’s basketball, that Al Bagnoli was doing with football, because those were two programs that were consistently challenging for the Ivy League championship, and that’s what we wanted to be,” Baker said.
The progress that the program made by the end of the 1998 season made it easier for Baker to move on. Andy Nelson took over in 1999 and guided a team that Baker had built to a second-place Ivy finish before bolting for Stanford after just 18 months at Penn.
Meanwhile, Baker went on to build Florida State’s program into a national contender and guided Georgia to three straight NCAA tournament appearances before joining the Cal coaching staff with his wife Kelly Sack-Baker last year.
“He felt very mixed emotions about leaving because he was happy for the girls who he recruited that I think raised the level of this program,” said Penn coach Darren Ambrose, a former assistant under Baker at Florida State.
“Some people may say, ‘Oh he left because Florida State was so good,’” Baker said. “Well they were bad! I’ll never forget my first day at Florida State — I was like, ‘My Penn team would have done quite well against Florida State.’ But I couldn’t have been more proud of just knowing where we had come in to where we had left it at Penn.”
Baker continued to influence the history of Penn women’s soccer even after he left for Tallahassee.
After just a year away from Penn, he was trusted to recommend his successor’s successor.
“When Andy Nelson left so quickly, they called back and said, ‘Listen, you built this program, you know what it takes, can you recommend somebody?” Baker said. “And as they’re saying this, I’m walking down the hallway at Florida State and I literally handed the phone over to Darren and they had a quick conversation. The next week he flew up for the interview and a week later he was the head coach at Penn.”
Ambrose has continued the upward trajectory of the program ever since taking over in 2000, leading the team to three Ivy titles without suffering a single losing season.
But Quakers fans have Baker to thank for initiating the modern era of Penn women’s soccer. When the Quakers have finished their business on the field Friday, he plans on thanking them, too.
“I don’t know how this game will unfold but I do hope I get a chance after the game to make sure the young ladies know how much I respect what they do, what I think of their coach and what they’re doing with the program,” Baker said. “Because it was one that I always thought could do well and I’m just happy that they are doing well and that they’re doing it under Darren’s leadership.”