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With one game in the books, coach Nicole Van Dyke starts her career at the helm of the Red and Blue undefeated.

Credit: Ilana Wurman

On any given weekend afternoon at Rhodes Field, you’ll see women charging up and down the turf, bold red block letters branding “PENN” across their chests. Flurries of action spring up and scatter across the field following the arcs of the soccer ball. Amidst all this chaos, one woman is a point of calm and stillness.

Coach Nicole Van Dyke wears the same Penn badge across her chest as her players, but she hardly ever moves. No pacing, no nervous twitches. Just her eyes following her players’ outstretched legs and feet yearning for the ball. Even from just a first glance of Sunday’s 3-1 season-opening victory over Seton Hall — Van Dyke’s first game coaching the Red and Blue — she looks like she belongs in the coach’s position.

Maybe her calm demeanor on Sunday was a reflection of the scoreboard — thanks to an early goal by sophomore transfer Lauren Petite, Penn settled into its first regular season game with a one-goal lead only four minutes into the action. Regardless, from the way her players clicked on the field from the get-go, it is clear that whatever Van Dyke has done in her two short weeks of coaching at Penn is working.

“It’s game by game,” said Van Dyke. “But also, we want to build a culture and a team where we play for each other and we play a Penn-style soccer.”

If that “Penn-style” is anything like what Van Dyke was used to at Stanford, it will certainly involve winning. Before packing her bags for Philadelphia after her hiring was announced in mid-March, Van Dyke spent four years in Palo Alto. In those four seasons at the Farm — her first three as an assistant coach, her final as assistant head coach — her team racked up a 0.866 winning percentage. Put another way, that’s only nine losses for the Cardinal in 97 games.

Granted, Van Dyke isn’t the one netting goals and earning tournament MVP honors. But if the Seton Hall win was any indication of just how much the aura of Van Dyke permeates through her players’ actions on the field, there are certainly good things to come for the Red and Blue.

“We come to practice, and it’s a blast,” says senior captain Erin Mikolai. “It’s not a job anymore.”

Part of this change in atmosphere comes from the influx of fresh faces on the team. From a player standpoint, nine new freshman joined the roster in 2015 and a slew of players out with injuries in the spring have returned to competitive shape for the fall.

Thus, with the roster far from concrete, Van Dyke has inspired a sense amongst her players of wanting to prove their worth both to their coaches and to their peers.

“There’s no one on the team that wouldn’t give 120 percent for her every single practice,” said Mikolai. “Just the momentum and the dedication at practice it seems like we’re a completely different team.”

The work ethic isn’t the only thing that looks different about the Quakers in 2015. For the first time since Suzette Wolf coached the Red and Blue back in 1993, Penn has a female head coach. Not only that, Van Dyke brought in two female assistants to join assistant coach Emily Perrin, a 2014 hire and the sole remnant of former coach Darren Ambrose’s staff, to round out an all-female staff.

That being said, the Cal-Bakersfield grad and former coach doesn’t allow gender to define her coaching style. “I prefer not to coach as a female,” she said. “We coach the individuals, we coach the teams.”

“My goal is that we’re just lead-by-example role models and that we’re good leaders for them every day,” said Van Dyke.

Thus far, one of the biggest impacts that Van Dyke and her staff have had is ushering in a new era of simplicity.

“Rather than being more direct in everything, she’s more about simple touches, finding feet, finding the easy pass,” said Mikolai. “She just gets us to be more composed with the ball.”

This change of play was noticeable on Sunday. Last year, it wasn’t uncommon to see the Quakers struggle to connect passes under pressure. Last weekend, Penn’s touches were precise and despite an aggressive attack from the Pirates, its defenders never seemed flustered.

According to Van Dyke, “We use these games to showcase what we’re learning and as we continue we start to build something.”

Just what is that something? It’s too soon to say. After all, the season is barely three weeks old. But if the positive energy and poise of Van Dyke’s team on the field continues to grow, it’s possible that those women with “PENN” emblazoned across their chests could very well be hoisting an Ivy trophy above their heads sometime in the near future.

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