The articles all read the same. The offense gets the glory and the keeper gets a shout out for a great save. But what about the defense?
All year long, the coverage surrounding Penn field hockey has focused mostly on broken scoring records and seeing new faces contributing consistently on the score sheet. But nowhere to be found is the defense.
A job that draws more attention when it’s done wrong than it’s done right, playing defense essentially boils down to keeping the ball out of your cage. And yet, it can be one of the most difficult positions to play on the field. And yet, it is rare that a defender gets the same recognition for doing her job that a forward does for doing hers.
No one knows this better than junior back Jasmine Li. After getting some sporadic playing time in her freshman season, Li was quickly thrust into a full-time starting role in her sophomore season. As a left back, she is often going against the opposition’s most dynamic player, tasked with stifling that player all across the defensive third of the field while also working to deny scoring chances within arc. Additionally, Li is on the defensive corner unit for the Quakers, sacrificing her body in order to keep the ball out of the goal during what is probably the best chance for the opposition to score.
Other than junior goalkeeper Liz Mata, Li is the only player to play in every game this year while not recording a single shot. In fact, over her entire Penn career, she has yet to record a single point or shot on the stat sheet. And yet, her contributions never go unnoticed by the team.
“The left back position is really a tough spot to be in,” Penn coach Colleen Fink said. “You can really get backed in to the defensive space very easily. But Jasmine really handles the ball well in pressure situations, I think that’s her number one asset. She beats her opponent to the spot and I think she’s really good at denying the pass and stepping up to intercept when she can.”
“As a defender, you definitely don’t get all the glory,” Li added. “But anyone who knows the game — your teammates, your coaches — definitely notice what every player on the field offers and every good play that a player makes. We’ve always spoken about that saying ‘defense wins championships’ on our team, so coaches have been really hard on us on minimizing our fouls and making those thankless runs. As long as I and my fellow defenders know we contributed to the game, we’re happy.”
Li didn’t see success right away at Penn. Despite playing in 14 games during her freshman year, she says that she felt frustrated by her lack of playing time and her performance on the field. On top of this, the Quaker coaching staff began to undertake a significant transition in the defensive philosophy of the team during Li’s freshman year.
By changing the focus to preventative defending across the entire field rather than just defending one-on-one in the defensive third, the players were forced out of their comfort zones and challenged to be more complete players. Through this set of challenges, she developed the mental toughness needed to play one of the most thankless positions on the field.
“I had a pretty tough freshman year actually with field hockey and not really getting playing time,” recalled Li. “Alex Agathis was a junior when I was a freshman, and she was really good about reaching out to me and helping me keep my head up and rooting for me to stick with it. ... Learning to confront a challenge, persevere through a difficult time when something doesn’t go your way is a huge thing.”
The Quakers will need Li’s mental toughness and stingy defense through the rest of their season as they hope to win out in pursuit of their first Ivy title since 2004. They are next in action on Saturday against Yale in New Haven.
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