Good leadership can prove the difference between try and triumph, and Penn field hockey is rife with multitalented players. Unlike previous years, the team will now rely on three captains to take it to the NCAA Tournament and finally take down Princeton.
The Quakers have had some great captains over the years. In their 2015 season that ended with a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Princeton in the de facto Ivy League championship, the Quakers were led by then-senior Elizabeth Hitti and junior Elise Tilton. Hitti is the program record-holder in career assists and was a field general. Tilton was a skillful midfielder who did her damage from the top of the diamond.
Still, their grit and skill were not enough to unseat Princeton that year, so it was back to the drawing board for the Quakers. They resolved to make 2016 their year, and for a while, it truly looked like things would happen that way. Tilton was joined by fellow senior Claire Kneizys as co-captain, and the two of them took charge of the center of the field along with center-back Paige Meily and center forward Alexa Hoover.
Once again, a highly skilled Quakers team was able to take down opponents with relative ease. There were slip-ups against top-ranked teams UNC and Syracuse, but still, the good far outweighed the bad. That is, until a midseason overtime loss to Harvard nearly sealed Penn’s fate of extending its streak to 12 straight years without an Ancient Eight title.
In the final game of the season, having since been officially eliminated from Ivy title contention, Penn would take on Princeton, who was playing for both an NCAA tournament berth and a potential share of the Ivy League championship. The Quakers, above all, wanted to be a thorn in the Tigers’ side. The outcome was not pretty — a 6-1 loss in a game where the Quakers were steamrolled.
But why did it happen? How did the Quakers lose by five goals to a team that was not much, if at all, better than them? It is a question with no clear answer, but it is something that they want to use as a learning experience before putting it behind themselves. After all, 2017 is a new year and the Ivy League throne is ripe for the taking.
Now that both 2016 captains have graduated, there will be a changing of the guard. This year’s captains are three seniors, Jasmine Li, Rachel Huang, and Alexa Hoover.
Li started once as a freshman before being thrust into a starting role on defense the following season. While in the backfield, Li was one of the team’s strongest starters, playing the flank across from Nicole Mackin. In 2016, she became a focal point for the backs, with several downfield aerials setting up great scoring opportunities.
After headlining a stopgap defense that surrendered just 2.07 goals per game in 2016, Li deserved a lot of credit. She pushed attackers to the corners of the field, leaving them with little real estate to make a play. Aggressive defending and an impressive transition game meant bad news for opponents. There was no easy way to get off a good shot when starting a rush on Li’s side of the field.
Her performance and leadership earned her captaincy nominations. Her co-captains are happy to lead with her.
“[Li] is super solid, direct when she needs to be,” Hoover said of her co-captain. Huang agreed that she is honest and always trying to help show her teammates where to go. Li is also aware of what she will bring to the table as a leader.
“I think that I’ve taken on a blunt role. I’m the one who will say the tough things. I’m comfortable taking on that role.”
This spring, following her junior season, Li took on a new role as she moved up the field, taking Kneizys’ old post at center defensive midfield. She will start there in 2017 but could ultimately move back in various set pieces.
For Li, the idea of being a captain is a dream come true. She started to set her sights on the role as a sophomore and a mix of hard work and success on the field earned the honor, an accolade voted on by her teammates and ultimately decided on by coach Colleen Fink.
Huang is a high energy and high motor midfield. Playing every game in 2014 and starting three, Huang picked up two goals on three shots. Despite not starting in 2015, Huang was an integral depth scorer, notching three goals and two helpers, also averaging more than a shot per game.
When the team took some losses in the midfield heading into 2016, Huang stepped up to become a full-time starter. She played and started in every game as an outside midfielder. Racing up and down the field, Huang had her best season yet with five goals and seven assists.
She enters her senior season with plenty to prove. After finishing 2016 as one of the top point producers, Huang will now not only be asked to improve on that performance, but also to become a focal leader on a team with a dozen freshmen and sophomores.
As is the case, Huang was also honored by the opportunity to be a captain for her team. After all, it was not until her junior year that she became a “core player.” But, more so than the title being a validation of her hard work, it also speaks to her personality.
“It was a huge honor because it came from my peers,” Huang said, later noting her short track record as a starter. “I had this chance to raise the team to a higher level and I thought that being named captain … I wanted to take this chance now to do even better and win an Ivy League championship.”
Huang will be a crucial component of this year’s team both as an outside midfielder but also as a leader. That should be no problem for Huang, according to her teammates. Li and Hoover both praised Huang’s personality, especially for her ability to uplift and energize those around her.
Finally, there’s Hoover. The incoming senior broke both the goals and points record for Penn field hockey with almost a year and a half left in her career. She boasts slick hands, incredible stick skills, and a nose for the goal. Hoover will be the third captain of this team.
As a center forward, many of Hoover’s directives come from those playing behind her, because they get a bigger picture of the opponent’s formation and alignments. A lot of Hoover’s goal-scoring success as a sophomore came from Hitti, the team captain in 2015. A lot of the balance and on-field awareness she added to her game in 2016 came from Tilton.
Now it will be Hoover’s chance to pass along any lessons that she can impart on the team’s younger talent. Despite being a program great and a nationally revered goal-scorer, Hoover believes in approachability and has been keen to reach out to the team’s incoming freshmen.
“It’s intimidating coming in, you [as a freshman] don’t want to bother [upperclassmen] with questions,” Hoover said.
Hoover’s leadership style is predicated on leading by example, something that her performance surely supports. The goal this year becomes matching her past performances while training up the younger players.
“She’s definitely someone people look up to,” Li said of her co-captain.
The end goal, for the captains and the team, is the Ivy League championship. Whether Princeton or Harvard or another team entirely jumps out early as a front-runner, it does not matter for the Quakers. Penn wants to make it to the top. Their new strategy: taking things one game at a time.
“We’re going to take every game the same way,” Hoover said. “There was a lot more stress placed on the Ivy games which makes me more nervous for the game.”
Li echoed Hoover’s take but added how they look to regain consistency.
“Consistency is really key. That’s something I’ve prided myself in in my field hockey career: being calm and composed,” Li said. “Being consistent might mean having the have a pre-game routine and having them get in a pre-game mindset.”
Penn field hockey will once again be a marquee program for the Red and Blue this fall. Despite the Quakers' in-conference losses the past two seasons, they have flirted with the top-20 and even top-15 in the coaches’ poll. If they can find consistency and their leadership plays the roles they need to play, the Quakers could be en route to a special run in 2017.
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