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Senior captain Elise Tilton is looking forward to playing tough opposition this weekend, as it helps the team's RPI rating.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Ananya Chandra

Penn field hockey coach Colleen Fink is looking to position her program among the nation’s elite. In the team’s opening slate of games, they’ll have the opportunity to do just that.

The challenge for the Quakers is two-fold this weekend. Not only are they coming up against a pair of top-tier teams in Lehigh and North Carolina — their opponents are already into their seasons. Because of the Ivy League’s schedule structure, Ancient Eight teams start later than the rest of the country.

Though this does not put Penn’s back to the wall, it does mean that the Red and Blue will have to move into mid-season form quickly.

“It’s tough. You can’t spend an exorbitant amount of time rehashing things that you feel as though they should already know,” Fink explained. “I think we kind of came in running and guns blazing. ... I think we’re relatively prepared, we’ve covered most aspects of the game in this short amount of time but you obviously learn something every game, too.”

Helpful for Quakers is the fact that the team is returning the lion’s share of its starters from a year ago. Instead of relying on freshmen early and often, Fink finally has the chance to ease in her young recruits as the quest for Penn’s first Ivy title since 2004 heats up.

Things kick off on Friday as Lehigh comes to town with a 1-1 record, with a win over Rider and a 5-0 defeat at the hands of Monmouth. The Mountain Hawks are a familiar team to Quakers, filling a schedule spot in four of the last five years. Penn won three of those four contests, losing only the first among them.

Sunday’s foe, North Carolina, has already split a pair of Big Ten contests, falling to Michigan before rebounding against Iowa. Before coming to University City, the Tar Heels (1-1) will get a look at the Quakers’ chief rival for the Ivy title as they pay a visit to Princeton on Friday.

“UNC clearly, I think, sets the tone that we’re a different team than we’ve been in the past,” Fink said. “And that we, too, are entering into that next phase of development of what Penn field hockey is going to be moving forward.”

North Carolina entered the year as the nation’s preseason No. 1 team, though no poll has been released since the Tar Heels’ season-opening loss to the Wolverines. In that initial poll, the Red and Blue were out of the top 25 but received enough votes in the National Field Hockey Coaches Association poll for 27th in the nation. This puts Fink’s squad in an early position for a potential NCAA Tournament run.

“You need these games for RPI,” senior captain Elise Tilton noted. “The goal is to be able to get into the tournament without having to win the Ivy championship. Because I believe that not only brings up the entire Ivy League, but it gives you a bit of a buffer to get in there.”

The Quakers hope to use this season to make a statement about the program’s status. This weekend, the rest of the nation will be listening.

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