lizmata

After only seeing action in one game her freshman year, junior Liz Mata starred in goal in all of the Red and Blue's 16 games last season.

Photo: Ananya Chandra / The Daily Pennsylvanian

There are some things in this world that I’ll never understand: quantum physics, rainbows and how Penn field hockey remains criminally underrated each and every year.

The Quakers are one of the major up-and-coming programs in collegiate field hockey and a simple checklist can easily verify that. One of the best teams in the nation? Check. A new and shiny state-of-the-art field? Check. A nationally acclaimed goal scorer? Check. Yet even with such impressive credentials, Penn field hockey is a team that always appears to be flying under the radar.

Sure, last year’s loss against Princeton was a heartbreaker, and they have yet to win the Ivy League title under the current coaching regime, but no team will have a chip on their shoulder this fall quite like the Red and Blue.

Right off the bat it is obvious that this team is very aware of how close it came to unseating Princeton last year. Even though a lot of the team’s on-field preparation remains the same, the burn from last year’s Ivy final still lingers.

“I think a lot of it is we’re just trying to move forward from last year,” senior captain Claire Kneizys said.

The starting lineup is full of blue-chippers at every positional group and each group looks to raise the bar further this year. The defense, at one point a concern in 2015, is currently loaded with talent and could very well be the best in the Ivy League this season.

It all starts with Kneizys, the team’s center back and a defensive rock. Her play was a huge reason why Penn’s goals against average ranked among the top 20 in the nation and was best in the Ivy League in 2015.

Other returning starters in the backfield include junior defender Jasmine Li and goalkeeper Liz Mata. After seeing spot duty in 2014, Li was given an opportunity to start in 2015 and ran with it. Mata was named starting goalkeeper as a sophomore after missing her freshman season with injury. Her .689 save percentage last year put her in the top half among Ivy League goalies.

Junior Madison Hendry returns to the defense this fall after an injury kept her off the field all of last year. As a freshman in 2014, Hendry started full-time and will likely be a focal point of this year’s goal-stopping crew.

Moving up the field, the midfield stars senior Elise Tilton, the team’s other captain. She brings a lot of experience to this Quakers team after already having started 47 contests in just three years. Her ability to set up from midfield made her a key component of the team’s offensive gameplan the past three seasons and she is likely in store for more of the same this year.

Also at midfield is a trio of returning sophomores. Karen Seid was a full-time starter from the get-go whereas Paige Meily and Rachel Mirkin both became mainstays in the lineup as the season wore on. All three of them will be competing for time on the team’s new-look midfield.

Even though the defense appears to be the strength of this team, the attack is where this program has strived for years and will continue to be the focal point in 2016. Junior attack Alexa Hoover was just .01 goals per game away from being first in the nation in that category and finished third in the nation in goals.

Her success has largely come at the hands of her playmaking midfielders and talented teammates on the attack. This year, however, Hoover is looking to open up the offense in order to help her teammates and bring team success at the expense of her own numbers.

“I understand that I might not score as many goals as last year,” Hoover said. “Ultimately it’s about the team winning. If I can do my part and pull a defender away and open a lane for Gina [Guccione] or Sofia [Palacios] or Rachel [Huang], that’s what is most important. So I’m going to focus on doing that more.”

What is Hoover’s loss will ultimately be the gain of the rest of the team’s attack, starting with junior attack and returning starter Gina Guccione. Of the returning Quakers, Guccione finished third in points in 2015, and, after coming on strong around midseason, kept defenses honest when Ivy play came around.

Elsewhere on offense, sophomore Sofia Palacios played sparingly during the 2015 season but looked like the best scorer on any team in the Quakers’ springtime exhibition against Syracuse. She will also help take some of the pressure off Hoover in 2016. Junior attack Rachel Huang, one of the team’s fastest on the field, saw more playing time in 2015 as the season wore on and will need to help keep the offense in full throttle.

On top of that, there also seems to be a genuine confidence that this team is good enough to go all the way this year and usurp Princeton at the top of the Ivy League. In order to accomplish that, confidence is key.

“We’re focusing on intensity to get out of the gate earlier,” Tilton said, later adding that, “We were hesitant about our confidence level — how good we were and how good they were.” Tilton later went on to recount that the team had a slow start against Princeton and that ultimately stopped the Quakers from hitting their full potential in the championship game.

Much of Princeton’s reputation as world-beaters disappeared in 2015 after appearing much more human in the Ivy League championship game. The Tigers of today are not the same as the 2012 squad that won the NCAA Championship. Tilton knows that any existing skill difference between the two programs is rapidly shrinking.

“They’re not the team they used to be and we’re not the team we used to be either.”

The Red and Blue will get to find their place without any spotlight on them; their RPI (the NCAA’s calculation that uses record and strength of schedule to rank programs) featured Penn in the top 15 in points last year, but the team had trouble cracking the coaches’ top 20 poll throughout 2015.

Heading into this season, we can already see the pessimists at work: the Quakers are on the outside looking in even after finishing one goal away from the NCAA Tournament. Things could turn around pretty quickly for the Quakers depending on how they fare this opening weekend.

The Red and Blue surely have their work cut out for them this year. They face off with heralded programs like UNC and Syracuse and are still looking for their first Ivy League championship since 2003.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and we have now seen that Penn field hockey will scratch and claw their way to the top. Even with an uphill battle, don’t be surprised if their final game — an early November matinee against Princeton — features the Ivy League title on the line.

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