Rewind to four weeks ago.
It was a clear late-August day and Sasha Stephens had just stepped onto Rhodes Field clad in Red and Blue for the first time. Penn women's soccer was opening its season against Seton Hall on Sept. 4, and after two and a half weeks of grueling preseason training, Stephens had earned a starting nod at forward.
The referee’s whistle blew, the seconds started ticking by on the scoreboard at the southwest end of the field. All it took was 15 minutes and eight seconds for Stephens to prove to her coach, her teammates and the gaggle of adoring fans from her freshman hall sitting in the shady quadrant of the stands that her starting spot was no fluke.
Against Seton Hall, Stephens would go on to score another unassisted goal in the 55th minute, capping her collegiate debut for the Quakers with two goals on six shots.
“It was great because usually I start off a little slow in the beginning of soccer seasons,” Stephens said of her debut performance.
Since her domination of the Pirates’ defense backs in September, Stephens has been quiet on the offensive front. The only numbers she’s added to her season stat sheet came on Sept. 18 against VCU when she sneaked in two shots.
Then again, Penn’s offense has been rather quiet since then too. The team has one goal in its past four games, and that point was scored from the Quakers’ backfield when senior Shannon Hennessy buried the ball in a net to cap off a late-game defensive breakaway.
While it may seem odd to see a defender score a goal – and an equalizing one at that – this type of dispersed offense is characteristic of Penn’s attack in 2015. Perhaps it is because the team’s backfield is veteran heavy while its front three are all freshmen, but with a balanced 3-3-3 system, anyone can score.
Thus, bearing the burden of the Quakers’ offense falls on no one person or no one line, a shift from years past when Penn relied on offensive superstars to carry its attack.
“We’ve been attacking it as a team effort,” Stephens said. “Defenders, midfielders, us. It’s not much of a burden. It’s my job, it’s everyone else’s job, we just have to do it together.”
Although Stephens’ numbers might hint that her stellar Seton Hall game was just a stroke of beginner’s luck, coach Nicole Van Dyke would beg to differ.
“When it comes to the clutch situations, she has done a great job,” Van Dyke said. “As a player she is very fluid in the way that she moves, she is very agile. She has pace, she can really do some incredible things when she gets on the ball.”
Stephens isn’t the only freshman on the team to see considerable minutes on the pitch for Penn. On the defensive side, back Romie Boyd has fit nicely into the mix of an otherwise experienced Quakers’ backfield. Maddie Dawkins, one of Stephens’ fellow forwards, scored the game-winning goal in the Red and Blue's 1-0 victory over USC Upstate on Sept. 13, and Allie Trzaska has stepped up for the Quakers in the midfield.
Yes, the attacking aspect of Penn’s game is conducted by a very young group of players. But Van Dyke sees this as an opportunity for growth rather than a hurdle her team must overcome.
“[Sasha] gets an opportunity that not a lot of freshman get. She gets to continually play minutes against high competition,” said Van Dyke. “That’s going to help her, not just for this year but for the years to come.”
Stephens is one of just three members of the Class of 2019 to see minutes in every one of Penn’s eight games in 2015. To Stephens, this position of leadership is an opportunity to demonstrate her work ethic, a trait for which Van Dyke lauded the forward.
“In my head I’m like, 'give 100 percent every single time. Every 50-50 I get into, get the ball,'” Stephens said. “I know that I work hard for my team and they work hard for me and I want to put in the same amount of effort if not more than anyone else on the field.”
Van Dyke and the rest of her coaching staff have taken note – in games, Stephens overcompensates for her lack of physical strength with ingenious moves and soccer smarts.
“She can really do some incredible things when she gets on the ball,” Van Dyke said. “She definitely has a high ceiling.”
Stephens hopes that ceiling is not just high for her own collegiate soccer career, but for her team as well. Although the team has struggled to add tallies to the win column as of late, Stephens has unfaltering confidence in her squad.
“Obviously we hit a few bumps,” she said. “But we’re gonna come up on top in the end. I know it.”
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