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Senior captain Claire Kneizys has been the focal point of a shifting and recently improved midfield unit for the Quakers.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Ananya Chandra

Heading into the thick of Ivy season, Penn field hockey is ready to roll. After winning their first Ivy contest on Saturday, the Quakers (6-2, 1-0 Ivy) look to repeat their success on Sunday when they host Harvard.

The Crimson (4-4, 1-0 Ivy) have had their high and low moments this season. They took down 19th-ranked Maine on Sunday but have lost three times to unranked opponents. The team faces another challenge in 13th-ranked Boston University before traveling to Ellen Vagelos Field on Sunday to face off with the Quakers.

The Red and Blue have the better record and the higher RPI rating – the NCAA’s objective points based system to rank teams based on record and strength of schedule – but the Crimson have defeated a ranked opponent. In other words, it is clear that no team is unequivocally superior to the other.

In the Quakers’ last game, they handily took down Drexel, 2-1. They outplayed and outchanced the Dragons from start to finish and never let their opponents establish their offensive attack. That leaves the Quakers with momentum after a stinging loss to No. 1 Syracuse on Sunday.

With the season now at its halfway point, coach Colleen Fink is happy with the progress the team has made resolving one weakness, but feels that the team still needs to improve in other facets.

Early on, the team most needed to work on its transition defense. The midfield and defenders struggled to get back during possession changes and often left prime real estate open for opponents to shoot at goalie Liz Mata.

“We’ve really worked on that very well and our positioning off the ball is much better,” Fink said. That certainly helps, but another essential factor in this transformation was switching senior Claire Kneizys with sophomore Paige Meily. As a freshman at Columbia and since transferring to Penn, Kneizys has exclusively played back. Meily was lauded earlier this year for her versatility and her ability to play both back and midfield. So what caused the change?

“I think it plays to both of their strengths a little more,” Fink said, who is happy to put Kneizys in a position to succeed. “I was asking her to do something that was not her instinctual style and that was hard... Now she has a lot more freedom to play her style, rely on her instincts.”

Positional changes, especially at such a high level of play, can be daunting, but Kneizys has worked hard to take it all in stride.

“It’s been good. Elise helps me, tells me where to be and Paige is helping me from the back positionally so I’m not doing it alone,” Kneizys said of her recent transition, adding that Meily has helped to smooth the process.

“Paige has been doing a great job.” Fink agreed.

“[Meily] is far more composed ... She’s not a forcing tackle kind of player... She’ll allow the tackle to come to her and that’s a little more what you need in a center back.”

With that, the midfield and defense have been much improved. They’ve allowed one goal or fewer in three of their last four contests and are limiting quality chances from opponents.

On the other hand, the midfield and attack have had plenty of quality chances but have had trouble turning those near-goals into points on the board. Fink assures that it is being addressed.

“We’ve had a lot of opportunities across the goal. I just don’t think we’re either playing physically enough or working on our timing enough to be able to finish in those situations,” Fink said. “I don’t think we’re threatening enough in those situations, and I think it’s one thing we need to address.”

For Penn, the variegated scoring has been one of the team’s strengths, albeit a relatively novel development. Junior Alexa Hoover — far and away the team’s most potent scorer in 2015 and one of the nation’s most respected — has been more pass happy to date, even as she sits one goal away from the program’s career record.

The attack is now able to split defenses by drawing in the opposition before feeding the ball to other midfielders and attackers such as Rachel Huang, Sofia Palacios, and Gina Guccione. That trio has combined for 12 goals already, with four apiece.

The key to Sunday, however, extends beyond all notions that the team is struggling to threaten on the attack. Instead, it will be about the Quakers’ ability to play the game their way, the team’s mantra all season long. On Sunday, those two words, “Our Way,” could be the difference between a happy ending and a crushing conference defeat.

“Keeping our head and playing our kind of hockey,” Kneizys said.

“Sometimes we get [in our heads] if they score on us or have a couple quick good plays, but I think if we play our style we’ll be successful.”

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