In most team sports, there’s no individual accolade as prestigious as the goal-scoring record. Penn field hockey’s Alexa Hoover, the Quakers’ star attack from Collegeville, Pa., knows quite a bit about that, having broken the record halfway through her junior season. Years of hard work have launched Hoover into the conversation for Penn’s all-time greatest in field hockey and, according to her coaches and teammates, she has earned every bit of that praise over the years.
Hoover’s development into a star was certainly no surprise. She started playing the sport at just four years old and by age 10 was already playing for a club field hockey team less than an hour outside of Philadelphia. Hoover was playing on the Viper Sports Club’s under-14 team when she had her first opportunity to play for Penn field hockey assistant coach Katelyn O’Brien.
“I was at practice and I am watching this kid play and I go, ‘Oh my God this kid is well beyond her years, even at that age.’ It seems crazy to call a 10 year old crazy athletic but, just she like is today, that kid knows one speed, and it’s 100 miles per hour, and that’s something innately I saw in her,” O’Brien said. “At that young age she would go all out as long as she could until she literally couldn’t.
“Not much has changed in that aspect.”
In club field hockey, for someone to be playing above her age group is an impressive feat on its own; to be playing on a team four years above her age group is a rather telltale sign of future stardom. There was certainly plenty of talent throughout the club, but that did not stop the coaches from relying on a 10 year old to dominate on a team with significantly older and more experienced players.
Hoover’s ability to find success, even at that young age, not only caught O’Brien’s eye, but also that of Penn field hockey head coach Colleen Fink. At the time, Fink was coaching the U-16 team at Vipers and was also the head coach at Haverford. Always with an eye looking to recruit, as Fink says, it should come as no surprise that she was able to see a star in the making in Hoover.
“She stood out from the beginning,” Fink said. “The one thing that always set her apart was that spark that she plays with. She has that electric way about her and that comes from her passion to compete. She just has a ton of heart.”
Before Hoover was even 14 years old, she was playing U-16, a testament of her ability to play up multiple age groups. On that Fink-led team was Hoover but also Claire Kneizys, now a senior captain for the Quakers. Neither player had aspirations to play for Fink at the collegiate level. In the end, they both would.
At the time, it seemed that Hoover would only play for O’Brien and Fink as a Viper. Hoover, who wanted to go to Penn since she was seven years old, would entertain offers from elite Division I field hockey programs. Likewise, neither Fink nor O’Brien was expecting to coach Hoover at a collegiate level, even though they both saw the makings of a future superstar.
From club to college
As fate would have it, Fink left Haverford to take the opportunity to coach at Penn in 2010. Bringing over O’Brien in the process, Fink was tasked with leaving her mark on Penn’s field hockey program. Likewise, Hoover, who had the choice to play at several other schools, wound up following her childhood aspirations to play for the Red and Blue. And, while there, she was reunited with some familiar friends in Emily Corcoran (who graduated from Penn in 2015), Kneizys, Fink, and O’Brien.
“Whether [Hoover and her parents] thought she was always going to end up at this school, I can’t say I felt that way from this side of the process,” Fink said.
When Hoover arrived to campus in 2014, she already had a sense of familiarity with some teammates and her coaches. Corcoran, a former Viper, was a senior captain at the time and led an attack line that featured Hoover as a full-time starter.
“[Hoover] was a standout from the beginning,” Corcoran said. “She showed from the first practice she’s a really confident player. She picked up on the speed really quickly.”
Part of what eased Hoover’s transition into collegiate play was Corcoran’s presence, according to O’Brien.
“She was able to get [Hoover] to feel really comfortable really quickly,” O’Brien said of Corcoran. “Emily really opened the doors to give Alexa that welcoming feeling right off the bat.”
Of course, Hoover also had to put in astonishing levels of work to earn a starting spot on a team that finished second in the Ivy League race the year before. But hard work is something that Hoover has always taken head on. In fact, Fink recalls that Hoover was poised to prove a difference from the get-go.
“She came in freshman year with really high expectations of herself,” Fink said.
In true Hoover-like fashion, she not only surpassed expectations: she crushed them. As a freshman, Hoover scored 14 times, the fourth most in Penn field hockey history. Whether the ball was coming from Corcoran, 2015 graduate Alex Iqbal or 2016 alum Elizabeth Hitti, Hoover was able to find the back of the net with ease.
Her working relationship with the coaching staff was vital as a freshman. Learning the positioning is a tall task on its own, which is why so few have the opportunity to start in their freshmen season. Hoover’s familiarity with O’Brien and Fink, however, made for honest communications among the three.
The Red and Blue faced a bit of a down year in 2014, finishing 8-9 and 3-4 in the Ivies, but Hoover’s success was a major bright spot on an otherwise dark season. After an incredible season that had her invited to the Young Women’s National Tournament, the goal for Hoover was to build on her previous marks and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.
The best way to describe Hoover’s play in 2015 would be the opposite of a slump. The most memorable figures, of course, are the 27 goals and 63 points she collected that season, both almost 50 percent higher than the previous program bests. However, that would only begin to tell the story of Hoover’s play last year. She broke the school record for goals in a game with five, points in a game with 10, and finished second in the nation in goals per game. She earned a shout-out in Sports Illustrated for her play and was even featured on local radio.
“As a freshman, being a standout, it is easy to settle,” Corcoran said of Hoover. “But she never settled with that role and was always working to get better.”
She and then-senior captain Hitti were two parts of the greatest show on AstroTurf, with a combined 33 goals and 27 assists between the two. In short, they were forces to be reckoned with.
“It was a lot of fun to play with Hoover. She’s a very dynamic player. She’s aggressive. She’s fast,” Hitti said. “She’s really good at knowing where to be to score the goal and get the best shot off.”
Yet again, it was another depressing finish to the season, a 2-1 overtime defeat at the hands of Princeton knocked Penn out of contention for the Ivy League title and an NCAA postseason appearance. Once again, the team lost more of its long-time starters that offseason and was forced to start fresh at key positions in 2016.
However, Hoover remained a constant, and so too did another one of the team’s major catalysts, Gina Guccione. The two have a strong on- and off-field closeness that dates back to their freshman year and has strengthened as Guccione has developed into one of the offense’s major threats.
“Coming in freshman year, you’re trying to get to know your class, and Alexa and I became good friends,” Guccione said. “Over the years our friendship has really grown, and that’s helped us on the field especially now with us going into bigger roles both starting as forwards. Our friendship helps us know each other’s style of play and helps us when we’re on the field together. It’s definitely fun to play with her.”
The two share a relationship on the field like no other duo, according to Fink and O’Brien.
“They’re a really great duo and they’re really fun to be around and really enjoyable to coach,” O’Brien said. “They have that special bond. They want the best for each other and the best out of each other.”
“I think the dynamic between Alexa and [Guccione] is exactly what Alexa needed to be successful,” Fink said. “Alexa can take a really serious approach to hockey and she has all these expectations — internal, external — really high standards … [Guccione] is clearly serious about it but she takes a much more light-hearted and spirited approach towards the game.
“You see that in their pre-game handshake. You see that in the way they celebrate together. Because [Guccione] is here, it makes it a lot more fun for Alexa. Without the fun, Alexa might not have the same results that she’s been having.”
The edge of glory
Heading into her junior year, Hoover decided it was time to make some changes to her playing style to become an even bigger threat — harness her playmaking ability to set up the team’s other goal-scorers while transitioning up the field. It is no small feat for a natural scorer to alter her playing style so drastically, but if anybody could do it, it was Hoover.
“She’s always been a playmaker. We’ve always praised her defensively, so she’s always been able to create offensive opportunities through her defensive play,” Fink said. “She is trying to contribute more significantly transitionally on offense.”
Of course, part of her ability to transition was from learning from great playmaking talents like Corcoran and Hitti, both of whom are featured prominently in the Penn record books for their assisting contributions. Hitti, the program’s all-time assists leader, helped to develop Hoover’s transitional game and that has proven to be a huge difference this season.
“This year she’s been able to rise to the occasion and set her teammates up and that makes her a well-rounded player,” Hitti said.
Coming into the season, the pressure was firmly on Hoover. She was just three goals and four points away from the all-time Quakers records. Undoubtedly she would break it, but it was unclear how quickly she would accomplish it.
Hoover went without a goal or an assist for the season’s first two games before she picked up one of each against LIU-Brooklyn. That performance left her two goals and one point away from the top of the record books. The next game, an intense overtime thriller against Saint Joe’s, Hoover had a game for the ages: two goals and two assists. With that, she broke the points record and tied the goals record. With just one more goal, the two most monumental accolades in Penn field hockey would belong to the junior.
Of course, the last goal — the 45th one — would be the most difficult. Whether she wanted it or not, Hoover was going to be dealing with immense pressure to score once more. Her teammates fed her the ball, hoping that she would get the record-breaker. But the opponents were ready and they knew what was at stake. And, in the season’s fifth game, Hoover went scoreless. And then in the sixth. And then in the seventh. And then in the eighth.
After the eighth game, it was Guccione who heaped praise on her teammate and wanted her to know that she had the full support of her teammates. At the end of our conversation, Guccione guaranteed that the goal would come in the next game. She was right.
On October 2, 2016, Harvard came to Ellen Vagelos Field for the Quakers’ second Ivy League contest. The Crimson tallied the game’s first goal, then added another before halftime. The Quakers were trailing by two at halftime and needed a spark.
Nine minutes into the second half, one of Harvard’s backs was looking to take the ball out of the circle, but Hoover pressed and deflected the pass. The errant ball went to Guccione, who passed to Hoover in the circle. Hoover hit Harvard’s goalie Libby Manela with a shot that was deflected back to her. The next shot would find its target and would leave Hoover the leader in goal-scoring with 45 (one higher than Lisa Romig’s previous mark).
Courtesy of Penn Athletics
“It’s definitely an unbelievable feeling to have finally done it and have my name up there and represent Penn that way,” Hoover said. “It’s awesome.”
Based on the resulting reactions from the team, it is pretty safe to say that the team was just as excited as Hoover was.
“We’re all very excited for her. We’ve seen it coming and we’re glad it finally happened,” senior captain Elise Tilton said. “It’s a great thing for her because she worked so hard and the whole team’s worked so hard too. It’s nice to have it happen while we’re all on the team. We’re all very happy.”
She was met with hugs on the field and thunderous cheers from her teammates on the sidelines. The record, which went from a possibility heading into her freshman year to a probability heading into her sophomore year to a near-certainty heading into her junior year, was finally broken.
Hoover would go on to score again that day, with the goal curse finally subsided. This time, a fast break and reverse chip would do the trick. In a testament to her on-field effort, Hoover was running on empty at the start of the play, yet burst forward and followed through with a goal. After the play, however, she needed a substitution.
At that point, Fink turned to look at Hoover, still exhausted from play, and saw her take that deep and freeing breath that, in one fell swoop, removed from her the pressure to score.
“It was freeing,” Fink said. “It was a lot for her to handle. I was smiling ear to ear.”
For O’Brien, who has worked with Hoover extensively since she was just 10 years old, the goal itself does not compare to the meaning of it.
“This is the best part of the job: to see something like that develop through the years and for somebody who you’ve known for so long achieve the goals they wanted to achieve.”
The result was bittersweet — Hoover scored two goals for Penn, but it was ultimately in a heartbreaking 3-2 double overtime loss to Harvard. Nevertheless, the team was still cheerful and the crowd was still proud of the team’s effort and for Hoover’s accomplishment. Corcoran even attended the game to cheer on and congratulate her old friend.
“I’m so excited for her. She has worked so hard,” Corcoran said. “She really deserves this and I’m really proud of all of her accomplishments.”
You would be hard-pressed to find anybody more cheerful of her friend’s success than Guccione.
“It’s the best thing. I was so happy when she finally scored. I gave her a big hug and before the game I knew she was going to score. I told her ‘today’s going to be the day you score,’” Guccione said. “[The goal was] something I’ll never forget.”
Breaking the goals record is a huge burden lifted off Hoover’s back, but there is still work to be done. Team success trumps individual success, and an Ivy League title has always been more important to Hoover than any individual accolades. Hitti, who broke a Penn scoring record en route to an Ivy League title-less campaign in 2015, is quick to offer that advice to her former teammate: the team always comes first.
“I would’ve given all my assists back if we won the Ivy League championship.”
For Hoover, this is undoubtedly a memorable feat in a collection of many. An Ivy League championship would be nice, too. But, at the end of it all, Hoover has earned the praise of her teammates and coaches and will likely be remembered as the best Quakers’ attacker ever, according to Fink.
“I think she is very deserving of it. I never got to see [Lisa Romig, the former record-holder] or all of these other people play, but I have to believe wholeheartedly that she’s the best offensive player that’s ever been a part of this program. I have to believe that. I’m glad that now the records indicate it.”