It’s unclear when Penn men’s soccer took the leap.
It may have been in the spring, months before this fairy tale season even kicked off, when coach Rudy Fuller had his players in the weight room, pushing them harder than ever.
“The first day after winter break, we were on the track in the morning in the cold,” junior forward Duke Lacroix said. “I remember that day.”
It may have been in that first week of the season when Penn outscored its two opponents, 7-0.
Or it may have been during the Quakers’ defeat of Cornell to kick off the Ivy slate, unseating the defending Ancient Eight champions.
But regardless of when, where or how, the Red and Blue figured it out this season.
After winning the Ivy League, the Quakers earned a home game in the first round of the NCAA tournament, an idea that would have seemed laughable after the Red and Blue’s disappointing 3-13 season in 2012.
From an Xs and Os standpoint, what made Penn weak last year became a strength in 2013 as the defense tightened up, allowing 12 fewer goals than last season. While the amount of shots on goal was comparable to last year’s number, the Quakers’ defense forced opponents into difficult positions to try and get shots off.
This made the jobs of senior Tyler Kinn and sophomore Max Polkinhorne that much easier. Both saw time in net this season, and each performed well, allowing a total of just 24 goals.
Compare those numbers to last year, when Kinn and Max Kurtzman, who quit the team in the spring, posted a combined goals against average of 2.28.
But really, talent was never the question. Since 2010, the last time the Quakers made the NCAA tournament, Penn has always had players that could score. Senior Stephen Baker and Lacroix welcomed the additions of Alec Neumann and Sam Hayward this season, but this transformation was less about offense or defense and more about heart.
The seniors of this group — Baker, the Kinn brothers, Jonny Dolezal, Ethan Jones, Alex Reddy and Nicky Yin — came together in a way that Fuller didn’t expect.
“When you talk about that group,” Fuller said, “It’s a very tight group of guys. It may be one of the closest classes on and off the field that I’ve coached here at Penn.
“And I think that’s a very big reason for their success. They feed off each other. They support each other. They’re all fully committed to what we’re trying to do.”
The seniors have set the standard for this team. Rather than bowing out after a tough junior campaign, they have created a different environment in the locker room and on the field.
After the Quakers learned who their opponent would be on Monday afternoon, Lacroix spoke to the new culture on the team.
“There was an aura around the team this year,” he said. “The fruit of our labor is being in the tournament at this moment.”
Just like back in 2010, when Penn made it to the second round of the NCAAs before falling to Maryland, 4-0, the vibe in the locker room had dictated the play on the field.
Fuller sees a lot of similarities between the character of the 2010 team and this one, and the similarities are surprising. After all, in both years Penn earned a home playoff game despite its RPI arguably not being worthy of one. And both times, Penn has had to stare down Maryland in the second round.
And this dream season may end with a thud in the same way that the 2010 season did. While Penn outplayed Bucknell in its first round game, the Quakers weren’t in the same league as Maryland.
But maybe it won’t.
The energy around Penn is strong right now, and making an appearance in the NCAAs won’t be enough for the Quakers.
“Everyone is happy with how we’re playing,” Dolezal said. “And we believe we can make a deep tournament run.”
JOHN PHILLIPS is a senior English major from Philadelphia, Pa. and a sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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