Until two weeks ago, Penn men’s soccer had drawn the most matches in the country. Almost entirely unbeaten, the Quakers were also winless. Then the floodgates opened.
Against La Salle, the Red and Blue (3-1-4, 1-0-0 Ivy) finally took home three points, winning a 1-0 contest at home. Although a midweek tilt with Lehigh yielded yet another 1-1 draw, Penn’s offense came to life against Drexel as Alec Neumann’s hat trick led the way to a 5-0 victory at Rhodes Field.
In case the Quakers needed to prove they could win on the road, they overcame Cornell last week with an overtime winner despite yielding an 86th minute equalizer that seemed to take the air out of the Red and Blue.
"Last year it would have been like we let ourselves down, we're going to let in another goal, we're going to lose that game," senior back Sam Wancowicz said. "This year it's a completely different attitude. It's a new year, new team and it's going very well."
Headed into the heart of Ivy play, Penn seems to be checking off all the boxes. Overcome adversity: check. Start out Ivy play with a win: check. Have your senior leadership come back to life: check. Throw in some freshman contributors: check.
Now, however, Penn coach Rudy Fuller’s squad needs to figure out how to do something they haven’t had much experience with over the last two years: take the momentum and run with it.
Rebuilding year or not, last year presented few periods where it felt like everything was clicking at the right time. Injuries hit left and right, freshmen went through growing pains and no single goalkeeper seemed comfortable between the pipes.
For evidence, look at the difference in scoring. Last year, eight players found the net for Fuller, none more than twice. Already in 2016, six have done so — and Neumann has returned to form with six goals following an injury-ravaged two-goal campaign in 2015.
So here there’s something to prove. On Wednesday, the Quakers host Delaware. They’ve gotten used to the midweek tilt to break up the boredom between weekend play, but the Blue Hens (8-3-0, 3-1-0 CAA) will represent a real test. They’ve either been ranked or received votes in almost every coaches’ poll this year — the best team Penn has faced since now-No. 10 Creighton.
As the Quakers drew Lehigh and Seton Hall, the Blue Hens took away a pair of wins. Both squads beat Drexel, but Wednesday will be the first time since traveling to Nebraska where the resume of the Quakers’ opponent bests their own.
"This team has a lot of confidence right now that they can win close games," Fuller said. "They can do what they need to do to win close games. We want to build on that tomorrow against a very good Delaware team."
Though the outcome of Wednesday’s game is important, it’s impossible to pretend that anything but Ivy play really matters. Enter Columbia.
Headed into Saturday’s matchup with the Lions (4-2-1, 0-0-1 Ivy), Penn stands alone atop the Ancient Eight — all six teams besides Penn and Cornell tied in their conference openers. With Columbia in town, the Quakers have a shot to extend that lead.
Last year, Penn let a 1-1 draw slip away on an own goal and the rails quickly fell off of the Ivy season. Though the Red and Blue had already beaten Cornell, they wouldn’t be able to find another win, dropping four of the last five conference contests and tying one on the way to a seventh-place finish.
"I don't really think much about last year's game against Columbia," Fuller said. "I do look forward to the game because, like Delaware, they're a very good team that likes to play, so it's going to be a good college soccer game. And those are the types of games you want to play in."
For Penn, the Ivy title won’t be won or lost this weekend, but the terms of the rest of the season may well be defined.
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