It may not have been the icing on the cake, but it was a pretty great cake nonetheless.
Penn closed out its season in a 1-1 draw at its Princeton rival. For what may have been a low scoring affair, there was an undeniable amount of passion on the field when the two sides met Saturday evening.
The single point from the night meant that the Quakers (9-3-4, 2-2-3 Ivy) secured fourth-place finish in the Ivy League standings, a one-spot improvement from the team’s fifth-place ending last season. A tie did the job for the Red and Blue in ensuring a top-half finish, but a loss would have seen the Tigers overtake them in the Ancient Eight table.
For Princeton, however, the match had implications that went beyond Ancient Eight pride. Although the Tigers (10-4-3, 2-3-2) struggled in conference play this season after winning the league last year, they remain highly rated nationally.
Heading into the week, Princeton had an RPI ranking of 31, the highest of any team in the Ancient Eight. Penn sits at 140.
A potential spot in the NCAA Tournament was on the line for the Tigers, but Penn coach Nicole Van Dyke’s side made sure it would get in a final word before the season came to a close.
“They may very well get a bid,” Van Dyke said. “But I think tonight we made that decision a whole lot harder for the selection committee.”
Princeton was the first to draw blood in the night when senior Haley Chow connected with the ball off a corner, sending it inside the left post past Penn freshman goalie Kitty Qu.
A trademark of the Quakers’ conference play has been responding to early challenges, something that happened when the team visited Dartmouth and most recently against Brown.
Saturday saw more of the same, when a sly corner play from sophomore Sasha Stephens found freshman Emily Sands at the top of the box. The team’s co-leading points scorer made no mistake with her next moves, beating a defender and then placing a left-footed ball into the upper right to equalize for the Red and Blue.
What began as a Princeton show transformed into a two-sided affair after that turning point, though a look at the statistics might paint a different picture. The hosts outshot the Red and Blue 17-6, a feeling the team has not become accustomed to this season. Qu was forced to rise to the occasion five times after the first goal, while the Princeton goalie only recorded one save.
But a well organized Penn defense ensured that its goal was never too threatened. Even with two U-23 national team members, the Tigers failed to take the lead, and Penn was able to play some of its best soccer all season.
For some members of the team, it was a great ending to their Red and Blue careers. The chance to have a go at their rivals, a potential NCAA Tournament contender, presented an incredible opportunity to make a statement in their final showing.
“It’s hard. After the game it just felt like my heart hurt,” captain Olivia Blaber said. “It’s going to be a tough few days, few weeks probably, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do that with anyone else.
“Something you can never tell from a record is how much heart a team has, and I think that’s something that goes beyond our team this season but is ingrained in our program. You lose that a lot of the time when you just look at statistics, but I’ve always been proud of what we’ve done just because of how much heart people play with.”
With this season in the books, it’s easy to see why this new Van Dyke era is an exciting one. The team was able to make clear improvements from its last campaign. An undefeated away record meant a lot for a team that struggled on the road in 2015.
“I’m just excited to see where they go from here because I think they have so much potential,” captain Paige Lombard said. “I can’t wait to come back and watch and see all the awesome things they’re going to do.”
“I couldn’t be prouder of this group,” the second-year coach said. “We all made sacrifices. We did it for the right reasons.
“I think our seniors wanted to leave a legacy and they’ve done that this year.”
It’s only upwards from here.
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