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Coach Nicole Van Dyke plans to increase the strength of Penn's schedule during her tenure.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

Anyone who has watched college football in the last decade knows that strength of schedule for teams on the national stage matters. A lot.

Just ask any TCU fan what it felt like to be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff this year because the 13-person committee believed its non-conference schedule was weaker than that of the other top teams. Or Oklahoma State in 2011, when the BCS rankings — which factored in strength of schedule through complex formulas — put the Cowboys in third behind Alabama by only 86 ten-thousandths of a point.

But while football might boast the most public display of scheduling importance, it matters for every college sport, and it is quickly becoming a focus for Penn women’s soccer, as well as other top teams in the Ivy League.

However, scheduling non-conference games at the beginning of a season is not an easy task for Ancient Eight coaches, as most other conferences have a big advantage by starting play much earlier.

“There is an art to scheduling,” coach Nicole Van Dyke said. “The one thing that we have to be cautious of is the opening weekend. You really have to gauge your team and its game fitness.”

After the first couple tune-up games but before the conference slate begins is when Ivy teams have looked to add top-ranked opponents to their schedules.

In the lead so far is Harvard, a perennial Ancient Eight powerhouse that has three games slated against top-25 teams this season after playing none in the previous five years.

In these contests, the Crimson faced off against the nation’s best, including then-No. 25 Connecticut, No. 25 William and Mary and No. 1 Virginia.

In their first season with Van Dyke at the helm, the Red and Blue followed suit, booking a showdown with then-No. 11 Clemson — currently ranked seventh in the nation — for their fourth game of the season.

While Harvard and Penn fell in each game against a ranked opponents, the Quakers especially brought its best to the national stage, only losing to Clemson 2-1.

Van Dyke does not plan to exclusively schedule tough opponents in non-conference games in the future, but she does hope a steady increase in schedule difficulty can elevate the Quakers play and establish a national presence.

“We want to gradually increase the schedule because I think we are a good team,” she said. “And as we continue to play good teams, we are just going to get better.

“Penn is not a regional university. Penn is a massive brand, and if we want to increase the brand, then we need to play all over the country,” said Van Dyke of her plans to take her team out west to her home state of California.

Not only does increasing schedule strength elevate play and contribute to “the whole student-athlete experience,” but it also brings up the possibility of an at large bid to the 32-team College Cup, the NCAA women’s soccer national championship tournament.

Historically, Ivy League teams do not receive at large bids to the tournament. Even in 2012, Dartmouth did not receive a bid, despite only one Ivy loss to Princeton and a higher ranking than the Tigers — 37th in the nation according to the NCAA Ratings Percentage Index.

Because of this, if Ivy League teams schedule top-ranked opponents and win games as underdogs, the possibility of tournament berth is even greater.

And Van Dyke says her club is always up for this challenge.

“Everyone knows where it’s a big game,” she said. “We try to attack it like, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity. ... We’re on the national stage.’”

This mentality was evident as the team fought hard in its loss against Clemson earlier in the year.

“I think we were still disappointed when we lost that game — that’s the best thing about being a part of this group,” Van Dyke said. “They are not a complacent group.

“They just want to challenge themselves and get better, and, as a staff, we are happy with that.”

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