The last match of Penn field hockey’s 2009 season was a 7-0 loss to Princeton.
The rout concluded a year in which the Quakers recorded just five wins in 17 matches.
Since that loss, a lot has changed. A new age for Penn field hockey has since started: the Colleen Fink era.
Fink was brought in to be the head coach in 2010 after a successful venture at nearby Haverford College. There, she took the Fords from 10th place to fifth in the Division III Centennial Conference — propelling the program from irrelevance to the playoffs.
While she enjoyed coaching at Haverford, Fink, who played field hockey herself at St. Joe’s, wanted to reenter the world of Division I sports.
So when the position opened at Penn, it was a natural choice for Fink, who would also have the opportunity to return to the lore of Big 5 competition — something near and dear to a woman who grew up surrounded by the collegiate rivalries of Philadelphia.
The Quakers’ struggling field hockey program would require a turnaround not unlike Fink’s previous experience at Haverford. Not only was Penn’s squad losing, but a culture of relaxed standards also pervaded it.
“Things were very different. We were definitely not as intense,” senior Sarah Hasson said. “We were not as involved in conditioning or lifting. Things were very lax.”
That culture quickly changed with Fink, who immediately placed entirely new demands on the team.
“When coach Fink was brought in, things kind of changed on a dime. With our first two practices with her, we knew that things were going to be completely different,” Hasson said.
In addition to altering the attitude of the team, Fink brought new energy to Penn’s recruiting. In her first recruiting year, she netted six players who started as freshmen, including two — Alex Iqbal and MaryRose Croddick — who received All-Ivy honors as rookies.
The torrent of new talent has continued into this year with the emergence of freshman Elizabeth Hitti. The Ashland, Mass., native, who leads the young squad with 14 points, chose to play for the Quakers largely due to Fink’s energy and vision.
“Coming from what she’s done in the past and her vision and the plan she has in place … it inspired me and it motivated me to come here,” Hitti said.
If Penn continues at its current pace, it could turn in its first winning season since 2006.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however, for Fink’s squad. The team sputtered in the win-loss column, finishing 3-14 and 4-13 in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
During the process, several players left as well. Hasson’s class fell from eight to three.
But none of this fazed Fink. In fact, she anticipated it.
“You have to weather the storms,” she said. “There’s definitely a couple of bumps along the way.”
Fink characterizes Penn’s current stage of development as one in which they are “learning how to win.”
While it would be easier to simply jump ahead to a time when the Quakers regularly rout opponents, Fink knows that is not how transformations work.
“You can’t skip steps, so unfortunately, this is a part of the process,” she said.
For Hasson, the recent string of tight games has been important to challenging the team and allowing it to show just how committed the program is to starting a winning tradition.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way, because we need to be able to prove to ourselves, to our coaches, to the university that we’re in it for the fight,” Hasson said.
But as long as Princeton remains among the top five field hockey squads in the nation, the Tigers will represent a major obstacle to Penn capturing an Ivy League championship. Even so, Fink believes the team is just a couple of years from “really being competitive” in the hunt for an Ancient Eight title.
The transformation of the field hockey program not only has the potential to inspire its current players and fans, but also alumni — a population that could be more important than ever while raising funds for a new AstroTurf field.
Alumna Laurel McGarvie, a senior in Fink’s first year, attended a game recently and was ecstatic about how far the team has come since she graduated.
“When I was at Penn this past weekend watching the girls, I was beaming the whole time. I watched a team that looked, to me, completely transformed,” McGarvie wrote in an email.
When Fink graduated from St. Joe’s with a marketing degree in 2000, she never envisioned coaching as a career, even though her father coached collegiate track and field and cross country. But since taking her first coaching job at Archbishop Carroll High School, she has never looked back.
“The minute I started, I knew [coaching] was what I wanted to do,” she said.
Now at Penn, Fink believes her career could potentially be built around the Quakers’ field hockey program.
“I am where I want to be as long as I think that Penn can be successful and that the athletics and the administration continues to support the vision and share the vision that I have for the program,” she said.
“I think this can be a career coaching position as long as I’m successful and lucky enough to hold onto my job.”
If the years to come show growth anything like the first three, Fink has no reason to worry about her job security.