In September of last year, the Penn men’s soccer team took the field against the Washington Huskies, a team ranked No. 7 in the country. They held on for a scoreless draw, a fantastic result for a young, talented squad against a heavily favored Pac-12 opponent. However, despite the early optimism, the Quakers would go on to have a season that could only be summed up as disappointing.
The Red and Blue would go on to finish the year seventh in the Ancient Eight standings, struggling to score and keep the ball out of their own net. They finished second to last in the conference in goals and goals allowed.
It seems the lack of success last year can be attributed to two main points: youth and injuries to the team’s few experienced leaders.
In 2016, look for those issues to be almost completely resolved.
The Red and Blue had one of the youngest teams in the Ivy League. Last season’s freshmen made up one of the most highly touted recruiting classes ever to arrive at Penn, and while talent is a major factor in a program’s success, even the best athletes aren’t usually ready for the grueling nature of Ivy League soccer.
“You see that top 15 recruiting class ranking, but when you get into the Ivy League, it comes down to the nitty gritty, last second goals, and that ranking doesn’t mean much anymore,” senior goalkeeper Nick Savino said. “Here in college, it’s a lot more physical. I think it’s a bit alarming for the freshmen that come in but the freshmen that get that year of experience under their belt will certainly have an advantage.”
At times in 2015, the Quakers had 10 freshmen on the pitch at the same time, even in clashes against the best squads in the Ivy League. This will not happen in 2016.
Coach Rudy Fuller agreed that even the best players coming out of high school have a tremendous adjustment to make when entering the Ivy ranks.
“You can’t prepare for it, you’ve got to experience it,” he said. “Even the group we have as freshmen this year, they have done a great job so far, they came in fit and ready for preseason, but it’s still going to be an eye-opening experience when we ... head into the Ivy League season.”
A year of experience for the talented youth on the Red and Blue will be accompanied by a healthy core of veterans, something last year's squad dearly missed.
“Right out of the gate having guys like Alec Neumann, Matt Poplawski and Sam Wancowicz healthy is going to be the biggest difference. Without question, despite how talented the group was last year, the reason we struggled was we lacked experience and leadership,” Fuller said. “We just threw them into the fire, and that was not the plan at all. The current sophomore class gained a lot of experience and even though that wasn’t planned, it will pay a lot of dividends for us. Having a year under their belt, having been humbled as a group that came in with a lot of accolades and a lot of humble, was really good for them.”
Senior forward Alec Neumann, a captain and arguably the best striker on the team, led the Quakers in shots last season, but only found the back of the net twice. His luck can and presumably will change this year, but he is also embracing an entirely new role as one of those seasoned veteran for this inexperienced group.
“Going through the years I have had junior and senior leaders impact me greatly, and I hope to continue that along, passing what I have learned and make it a cohesive team,” Neumann said. "This group of guys has been close knit from the start and the new freshman have molded well from the start. That big sophomore class has really grown this past year and I think we are a lot further along then we were at this point last year.”
The underwhelming record masks the fact that the Quakers had their fair share of tough games that could have gone either way. One that stood out was a loss to eventual Ancient Eight champion Dartmouth, who scored in the final minutes to break Penn’s hearts. Winning those games takes experience, something the Quakers desperately lacked last season. Those types of losses can easily swing in the other direction and, in 2016, they will.
“Learning what it takes to win and how to close games and teams out is a big ask when you consider that often, like in the Dartmouth loss, ten of the eleven players we had out on the field were freshmen. That’s where upperclassman leadership really comes into play,” Fuller said. “It’s huge motivation. What this team has done really well is put the negatives of last season behind them and tapped into the positives. They are a spirited group who are humble and hungry for success.”
Can the Quakers bounce back after a down year? If they are able to stay injury-free, the ceiling on this team is incredibly high and the 2016 season could see them bounce back right back into contention for the Ivy League title.
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