The last game of the Penn men’s soccer season was supposed to take place on Nov. 12 against Harvard. There would be fanfare, family members and a pre-game recognition of the team’s three graduating seniors: forward Alec Neumann, midfielder Matt Poplawski and goalkeeper Nick Savino.
Instead of seeing 24 Red and Blue jerseys lined up at centerfield in salute of the Class of 2017 that afternoon, however, the turf of Rhodes Field lay untouched, the stands unpopulated. Far from Philadelphia, the Harvard men’s team sat idle as they watched the rest of the Ivy League battle for a conference crown once within their reach.
Last Saturday afternoon wore on without a soccer game due to the Harvard Athletic Department’s bold decision to cancel the remainder of the 2016 men’s soccer season on Nov. 4, upon learning that players had continued producing “sexually explicit” reports about Harvard women’s soccer recruiting classes despite previously being admonished. Penn’s loss of senior night was but one small consequence.
The decision sent shockwaves through the Ivy League soccer community and beyond. On the broadest level, the swift action and discipline taken by Athletic Director Bob Scalise sends a positive message to the University athletic community that such deplorable degradation of women is unacceptable. While the season cancellation would have been meaningful regardless of Harvard’s ranking in the Ivy League, it carried even more weight because the Crimson men’s soccer program stood poised to win the 2016 conference title.
On a more logistical level, Harvard would forfeit its remaining games against Columbia, now tied for first in the league, and Penn, a team suddenly within striking distance of taking home a share of the conference crown. When news broke on that Friday night, questions shrouded the immediate future of both programs. The Quakers’ seniors wondered, would their game against Princeton the following day be their last?
“There was no guarantee there was going to be another game,” coach Rudy Fuller said.
Most notably for Penn, the cancellation of the Harvard match meant that the three seniors would not get to play the final home game of their collegiate careers. When compared to the scope of issues raised by the actions of the Harvard men’s soccer team, such as female objectification in athletics and blatant sexism, the loss of senior night may seem trivial.
But to that trio of Quakers’ players, it’s an abrupt and unfortunate ending to a season and to a career.
Poplawski remembers that Friday night as hectic. With so much on the line, the mood on the team was much more charged than usual.
“When we first found out we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “We kind of thought there might be a possibility that Princeton was going to be our last game, so it added a little more emotion to that game.”
Over the weekend, the Ivy League would settle on scheduling a mid-week neutral-site game between Columbia and Penn on Wednesday, Nov. 9. With the date of the final game of 2016 moved up three days on short notice, family members of Penn’s seniors scrambled to clear schedules and get to Princeton, N.J., to send off their sons.
“Some of the family members that were planning on coming couldn’t make it out to the midweek game so that was a little disappointing,” Poplawski said. “But my dad was fortunately able to still make it out and it was pretty special to still have him there. The other seniors also had one parent and a couple of family members there.”
For a compromise game under rather unique circumstances, Fuller was happy the seniors were recognized in some capacity. Still, the coach of 19 years was disheartened by the way the 2016 season closed.
“Matt and Alec and Nick have given so much to the program over these last four years that we really wanted to send them off with a game at home, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible,” he said. “The way it ended up happening there were a few fans in the stands and there was certainly still representation from each of the three families, but we can’t sit here and say it was the same as it would have been at Rhodes Field on last Saturday.”
Although the Harvard game was just one of countless in the careers of Neumann, Poplawski and Savino, it was perhaps one of the most significant. The result against Harvard would have been less important than the makeshift Columbia matchup proved to be, but the significance of walking on to the field to represent something bigger than yourself for one last time in front of family and friends can’t be ignored.
While the trio of seniors did get to stride across Rhodes Field for a final time against Brown on October 29, they didn’t know it would be their last time. Maybe I’m just nostalgic given that I’m a senior athlete at Penn whose team only has one home meet, but so much of your last hurrah as a college athlete is built on expectations.
As a senior you still have goals for your own athletic development and for that of your team, but you have much less skin in the game than your underclassmen teammates considering that your time left wearing the Red and Blue is characterized by a countdown. With little more than a week left in their season, Neumann, Poplawski and Savino saw their countdown cut short by four days. It was a rapid revision of expectations, but it also brought a silver lining. The seniors now had a possibility of earning a share of the Ivy League title, something they had not done since their freshman season in 2013.
It is a testament to the dedication of Penn men’s soccer’s three seniors that they were not embittered by the outcome of their season.
“I think in the end, the fact that they lost senior day at home was completely overshadowed,” Fuller said. “They were more disappointed with not being able to get the win [against Columbia] and stay in the race than anything else.”
And now despite a tumultuous end to the soccer careers of Neumann, Poplawski and Savino, the race is over.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.