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Sophomore midfielder Heather Issing is one of 19 underclassmen suiting up for Penn this year. In their first test of the season, the young Quakers will look to defend their home turf against Iowa State today.[Will Burhop/The Daily Pennsylvanian]

The past few seasons, the Penn women's soccer program has been missing an integral part of a team -- a permanent coach.

The program has seen two head coaches come and go in the last three seasons.

This year, the Quakers may have finally found some stability.

With head coach Darren Ambrose returning for another go at it after a successful rookie campaign, the Quakers will look to improve upon last year's 10-8-1 record. Despite closing out the season with an Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Championship, Penn missed out on a second consecutive NCAA berth, losing five of its seven Ivy League contests.

"Last year was disappointing -- we went to NCAAs the year before and we wrongfully thought we could just coast into them again," Ambrose said. "As long as we focus at the beginning of the year we have the potential to be very, very good."

Being very good might be tough, though, with the loss of five key seniors to graduation, including star midfielder Kelli Toland, a four-time all-Ivy selection. The squad now boasts just four upperclassmen.

What the Quakers lack in experience, however, they make up for in youth and speed. The strong recruiting class of 11 freshmen was ranked ninth in the Mid-Atlantic region by

"It's a preseason poll, so it's very subjective," Ambrose said. "However, I think it speaks highly of the very talented group we brought in this year."

Ambrose will be counting on the freshmen to contribute right away this year. As many as five first-year players could be starting in today's opener against Iowa State.

As for the upperclassmen, junior Jen Valentine leads the group. Valentine was a top midfielder in 2000, but will be starting the season at center defense due to a recurring knee injury to senior Sarah Campbell.

"I don't mind making a switch in positions," Valentine said. "I just want to be out on the field helping the team."

Injuries are a major concern for Ambrose. Because of the lack of upperclassmen, the Quakers are not very deep, with only 23 players on the roster.

"We're going to have to deal with some adversities, especially early in the season," Ambrose said. "If we can get through them, we should be able to improve significantly."

The Red and Blue look to reverse the fortunes of the 2000 season, when a 2-5 Ivy League record included four heartbreaking one-goal losses, one of them in overtime.

The low point in the season was a 2-1 loss to Harvard, in which the Quakers blew a late one-goal lead to an opponent they have never beaten in their program's 10-year history.

One of the ways Ambrose looks to achieve this turnaround is through speed. The Quakers will be on the run for the full 90 minutes, making frequent substitutions and trying to keep players fresh, especially at the forward position.

Two of the forwards the Quakers will be counting on are junior Heather Taylor, who was the leading goal scorer in the spring soccer season, and freshman Katy Cross.

"I just want to try to go out and make an impact," Cross said. "We're going to try to outrun our opponents, and I hope I can contribute to that."

With an improved squad comes an improved schedule, and the Quakers have added strong non-conference opponents such as Iowa State, George Mason and William and Mary to go along with the national powers in the Ivy League. The Red and Blue open today against Iowa State at 5 p.m. on Rhodes Field and close the regular season at Harvard on Nov. 11.

One bright spot for the Quakers already this year was a preseason scrimmage with Princeton. The Quakers battled to a scoreless tie with last year's Ivy League champions.

Despite the auspicious beginning to Penn's 2001 campaign, the Quakers still face many question marks going into the start of the regular season. The injury to top returnee Campbell is a major concern, as is the lack of upperclassmen on the team. The rigorous college schedule of athletics and academics could potentially put a major strain on the freshmen, asking them to mature too quickly.

"The college game is just so much more competitive," freshman defender Jessica Woodward said. "It's a lot more physical, a lot faster -- we all just have to step it up to another level, and hopefully we'll have a successful season."

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