Any team is liable to have some jitters on opening night. That said, even the most extreme cases are cured by capturing two wins to start the season.
After initially struggling to find an offensive rhythm in matches against James Madison and Temple, the Penn women’s soccer team ultimately delivered at Rhodes Field and defeated both opponents, 2-1 and 2-0, respectively.
The games, against the Dukes on Friday and the Owls on Sunday, featured the return of 2010 ECAC and Ivy League Rookie of the Year Kerry Scalora, who suffered a season-ending injury last fall. Now a junior, Scalora punctuated her journey through rehabilitation with a dramatic conclusion: scoring the game-winning goal against James Madison (2-2).
“Right before the game, I was so nervous because I haven’t been on the field in a while … once I saw the goal go in the back of the net, I was just like, ‘Take me off the field, I want to cry,’” Scalora said. “It meant that much to me.”
The weekend also saw two Penn players, juniors Laura Oliver and Claire Walker, tally the first goals of their careers.
Oliver’s goal came in the first half against James Madison, just 27 seconds after the Dukes took a 1-0 lead. Making her first touch of the game, Oliver knocked a cross from the right side off the goal post and into the net.
All signs point to an increase in Oliver’s impact on the Quakers’ offense this season, especially as she plays more aggressively near the goal.
“She’s becoming more and more of an attacking oriented player,” coach Darren Ambrose said. “She’s got the skill, she has the speed, but she doesn’t impose herself upon the game. When she does, look out.”
Meanwhile, on the defensive end, junior back Brianna Rano competed against her younger sister Shannon, a sophomore defender for James Madison. While Shannon notched the Dukes’ only goal, Brianna walked away with the win and managed to tackle her sister at least once, despite playing on opposite ends of the field.
“That was the highlight of the game for me,” Brianna said with a laugh.
Against Temple (1-3-1) on Sunday, Brianna scored a goal of her own — the first of the game — when she lined up a long free kick on the right side and struck the ball in a high arc that curved toward the far post. While the free kick failed to connect with any of her teammates, it did manage to find the back of the net after the Temple defense misplayed it.
“I actually overhit it a little. I kind of was aiming to put in on somebody’s head,” Brianna said. “It wound up just going right into the corner instead, so I was happy.”
Later in the match, Brianna attempted to repeat her performance on an eerily similar free kick and pegged the shot off the top of the goal post.
No score on the weekend was more crucial or emotionally charged than Scalora’s goal in the 65th minute against James Madison. With the game tied, 1-1, Scalora gathered a corner kick at the top of the penalty area, took a touch to her left and drilled a shot between the legs of a defender into the right corner of the goal.
Defense was the focal point of last year’s Penn squad, which held its opponents to just seven goals in 17 games and led the nation in shutout percentage.
This year’s backline, led by Rano, sophomore Haley Cooper and seniors Erin Thayer and Alex Dayneka, played as if nothing has changed.
Penn’s defense conceded just 12 shots on the weekend and was rarely challenged.
Senior goalkeeper Sarah Banks was an active voice in the back and could be heard directing traffic throughout the games. While the defense had only a few miscues, the offense required more time to develop a rhythm.
At the start of both matches, Penn’s offense seemed out of sync, playing frantically at times and struggling to control possessions beyond a couple of passes.
However, as the games wore on, the team showed progressively sharper tactical skill.
“When it became a soccer game and not a track meet, then I think it played to what we do, which is knock it around and create chances,” Ambrose said.
In the second half against Temple, several Quakers — including Scalora, Oliver and sophomores Clara Midgley and Megan York — made effective runs against the Owls defense, leading to 12 shots.
By comparison, Temple got off just three shots in the entire game.
Despite the shot advantage, Ambrose would like to see the offense demonstrate more determination and aggression in the final third of the field.
“We want to see two or three players step up and impose themselves and really take over the game from an attacking standpoint,” Ambrose said.