wsoccerSashaStephens

Junior forward Sasha Stephens, the team's leading scorer in 2016, was, along with the rest of her team, unable to find the back of the net against Lehigh and La Salle.

Photo: Alex Fisher

At the end of the season, wins and losses are all that matter, but with Ivy play still weeks away, Penn women’s soccer will gladly take solace in the moral victories that defined the team's opening weekend. After all, that’s the only type of victory they got.

The Quakers opened their season on Friday at Rhodes Field with a 1-0 loss to Lehigh and repeated that scoreline two days later on Sunday against La Salle. The Quakers (0-2) showed promise in both games, but ultimately, they failed to convert on their opportunities.

Lehigh (2-0-1) attacked a young Penn back four right out of the gate. Penn had no answer  for the Mountain Hawk’s stifling high press. The first half was filled with examples of the Quakers  losing possession in the midfield and in their own end. 

“Anytime you have four new [defenders] playing together there’s a learning curve of figuring out the relationships and who’s good at what, and you have to have time. They’ve never played together,” coach Nicole Van Dyke said. “We’ve had season-ending injuries to starting defender Romie [Boyd] and so now were just trying to find the best fit.”

Despite the rust and lack of experience, the start wasn’t all bad for the Quakers. Incisive runs from junior Sasha Stephens and quality distribution from sophomore Emily Sands created many opportunities for an opening goal. Penn just lacked the final bit of creativity and killer instinct needed to put the ball in the back of the net.

Lehigh changed the game in the 40th minute when sophomore Annika Jansa fired a shot past Qu from 30 yards out after a corner. The Quakers were unprepared to defend the short corner and failed to close down on Jansa before she unleashed her game-winning shot.

The second half featured a tactical change from Van Dyke, who shifted the Quakers into a sturdier 4-4-2 to combat Lehigh’s dominance in the midfield. The shift worked, as Penn held more possession in the second half and created several strong chances, including two on corners that probably should have been converted. In the end, Lehigh held on to their narrow lead, leaving the Red and Blue clutching only at silver linings.

If Lehigh beat Penn with a high press and good last ditch defending, La Salle (3-0-1) found an entirely different game plan—capitalize on the Quakers’ recent inability to score. The Explorers were outmatched by a more confident Penn team for the majority of the game. The Red and Blue dominated the first half, turning an endless wave of pressure into quality scoring opportunities seemingly at will.

The first of these came only four minutes in, as senior Darby Mason found herself wide open just outside the box and ripped a shot destined for the top corner until La Salle goalkeeper Larisa Zambelli made a phenomenal save. Another chance came to 2016 leading scorer Emma Loving at the six-yard box, but the sophomore failed to apply the finish.

The Quaker dominance slowly petered out in the second half as La Salle’s greater fitness took over the game. Then, in the 80th minute, the Explorers' Danielle Marx fooled the Penn defense and calmly scored.

“You got young kids in the end who’ve played 90 minutes and [Marx] just diced our young freshmen.” Van Dyke said. “We ran out of gas.”

Van Dyke suggested that the lack of conditioning and preparedness was a result of the limited amount of practice time before the two games, especially compared to opponents who had the benefit of an extra week or two of preseason practice.

“We told the kids, ‘It’s not about how you start,’” Van Dyke said. “We knew what we were doing this year with our schedule. We’re gonna play teams that make us better. La Salle’s a good team; they’re as good as any team in the Ivy League.”

Moral victories in hand, the Quakers will look to win their first game next weekend on a big tri[p to California, where they will face UC Irvine and UC Riverside. With another week of training and two games under their belts, the Quakers will find themselves a more formidable force upon touching down on the west coast. 

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