Recently hired Penn women’s soccer coach Nicole Van Dyke started from humble beginnings, but she comes to Penn with the ambitious goal of putting the Quakers on a national stage.
Taking the program to new heights will be no small feat, as Van Dyke succeeds Darren Ambrose — one of the most successful and prolific coaches in Ivy League history. In his 15 years at the helm, Ambrose’s squads never recorded a losing season while winning all three of the program’s Ivy League titles.
But Van Dyke has more than Ancient Eight championships on her mind. She plans to move focus away from merely winning an Ivy League title and toward competing on the national level by creating a competitive preseason schedule.
“I don’t want one game against Harvard to be the end all for the whole entire year. I want to win an Ivy League championship, but I also want to compete at the national level,” the former Stanford assistant coach said. “I know that’s not going to happen overnight, but I would like to strengthen the schedule a little bit. I would like to create a culture where... we’re looking at [the schedule] as in a 17-game sense, not just a seven-game sense [against Ivy competition].”
According to Van Dyke, this strategy has two advantages. Most importantly, it positions the program to compete for at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament on a consistent basis, even when a bad bounce against Princeton or an injury before playing Harvard costs Penn the Ivy title.
“The end goal is obviously competing for a national championship,” Van Dyke said. “In order to do that, you don’t have to be one — you have to be one of 64.”
Secondly, The former Cal State Bakersfield player also aims to boost the team’s nonconference schedule in order to prepare the squad for Ivy League play, in turn ensuring that it leaves less to chance against its conference opponents.
However, Van Dyke’s plan to challenge her team starts from her own coaching values.
“If I say, ‘Hey, we want to be the best that we can be,’ and then I don’t schedule anybody that’s even going to challenge us, then I’m not really staying true to what I think our purpose is,” Van Dyke said.
Though her goals are lofty, Van Dyke’s past speaks to her ability to take programs from relative obscurity to competing at an elite level. As a 23-year-old, Van Dyke assumed the head coaching position at Cal State Stanislaus, a Division II program that was only three years old. Yet in her third season, Van Dyke led the Warriors to a 15-4-2 record and a league title.
“[It was] probably one of the least desirable locations in the Division II conference,” Van Dyke said. “And we went on in three years to win the conference.”
She followed her performance at Stanislaus by returning to her alma mater, where she spent a five-year stint overseeing Bakersfield’s transition into Division I soccer. Although her team struggled to manage a .300 winning percentage, Van Dyke’s next career move was to join Stanford as an assistant coach under the tutelage of Paul Ratcliffe, a five-time Pac-12 coach of the year.
During her four years with the Cardinal from 2011 to 2014, the program finally broke into the realm of a powerhouse, winning its first national championship in 2011 and recording an almost preposterous record of 81-9-7 over that span.
The experience gave Van Dyke the exposure to a premier program in action, which was precisely what she sought there.
“I was ambitious professionally,” Van Dyke said. “I wanted to work with the highest elite [athletes] that I possibly could.”
Of course, competing with the likes of Stanford can be an uphill battle in the Ivy League, in large part due to the lack of athletic scholarships. Van Dyke remains confident, however, that she can recruit at the level needed to put Penn on the map.
“Anybody can recruit a good player,” Van Dyke said. “Especially at Stanford, it’s more like throwing fish out of the boat. But in order to be a good recruiter, you have to figure out what’s a good fit for Penn.
“I don’t want to just compete with the Ivies for players. There are kids out there that maybe you can help them understand the value of this education.”
Though Van Dyke notes parallels between Penn and Stanford in their academic standards and national recruiting reach, she was attracted to Penn in part because of the ways in which Philadelphia’s environment differs from the wealthy Palo Alto suburbs. To her, it’s a city with a “blue collar” sensibility.
“I think it might attract a different kid, which is probably a little bit closer to my roots,” Van Dyke said.
A first-generation college graduate, Van Dyke grew up in a household that valued hard work, as her father did when he moved his family from Washington to California to start his own business in marble, tile and construction. But her humble beginnings didn’t deter Van Dyke from excelling in athletics and academics.
And though there is little about the Ivy League that is blue collar, Van Dyke now takes up the challenge of helping a team from a largely ignored athletic conference to ascend the national rankings.
“I’d love to see them compete [like] Princeton [women’s] basketball is doing right now,” Van Dyke said. “I’d love to see that happen here.”Comments powered by Disqus
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