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Penn field hockey's captains took different paths to the honor. Elise Tilton (left) was targeted by Penn as a high schooler, while Claire Kneizys transferred after a year at Columbia and walked on.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Zach Sheldon

It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you end up

Penn field hockey’s senior captains, Elise Tilton and Claire Kneizys, made it to Penn in very different ways. But now that they’re here, they have one key similarity: an unmatched drive to lead the Quakers to their first Ivy League title since 2004.

This is by no means an easy feat; the Ivy League is one of the most tightly contested leagues in the NCAA. The recent loss to Harvard means that the Red and Blue will likely have to win every other Ivy contest they play, including the match at archrival and perennial field hockey powerhouse Princeton.

Penn lost in overtime to the Tigers last year in the de facto Ivy League championship game, so the Quakers will be looking to avenge that defeat in the pursuit of a conference championship. That is, of course, assuming that they can come up with wins against the remainder of the Ivy League as well.

But the captains have faced plenty of challenges before. After a disappointing sophomore season in 2014 that saw the Quakers go 8-9 and finish fifth in the Ivy League, the duo was critical to last year’s comeback season for the team, when the Red and Blue finished second in the league with a 13-4 record overall.

If the Quakers are to finally break through, it will start with the leadership of Kneizys and Tilton.

“I think the number one thing is that people trust them,” Penn coach Colleen Fink said. “People know that they’re committed to the program and always have been, and that’s exactly what you want in a leader. They lead by example, and they want it more than anything. They’re great people on and off the field.”

While they find themselves sharing captain’s duties now, the captains arrived at their leadership positions in different ways. Tilton was scouted by Fink when she was in high school at a camp held at Princeton, and she made an impression on the coach immediately.

“[Elise] was just one of those people that really did display resilience, even in a camp setting,” Fink said. “She was just really tough, she would just grind things out, she worked incredibly hard. She also had a lot of finesse skills, and she definitely just had the style of hockey that I look for.”

Kneizys, on the other hand, wasn’t actually even at Penn for her freshman year. Even though she was coached by Fink on her high school club team, she originally decided to attend Columbia.

After a year of playing for the Lions, however, she decided that she wanted a change. Kneizys transferred into Wharton, but also wanted to make sure she could still play the sport that has played such a big role in her life, so she asked her former coach if she could have the chance to walk on to the team.

“After she was admitted to Penn and got the proper releases, she contacted and me and said, ‘Hey, could I walk on?’ I mean that’s a coach’s dream come true. To have an experienced, strong player that you know. The stars aligned, and we were reunited,” said Fink.

Consistent with the theme of differences between the two captains, both draw their inspiration from different sources as well.

For Tilton, the player that had the most profound impact on her was the captain of the team from her freshman year, center midfielder and captain Julie Tahan.

“She just had a really aggressive style of play, and it’s very different from my style, but I think that’s why I liked it so much,” Tilton said. “Her intensity that she played with all the time, her aggression in intercepting on defense. It’s very different from what I do but at the same time I try to incorporate what she does because it adds a little bit more to my game and makes me a little more multi-faceted.”

For Kneizys, the players that molded her game and attitude were last year’s captains, forward Elizabeth Hitti and back Nicole Mackin.

“Hitti was a great player and put her heart into every game, so I think taking that and putting my all into field hockey has really helped me. Nicole was always just the most positive player, I try to be a teammate like her every day. She was always cheering everyone on and making sure to support everyone on and off the field, so I look to those two a lot,” Kneizys said.

Although there are clear differences between the experiences of the two captains, they’ve both gone through incredible periods of growth during their time on the team. The qualities that they’ve gained from their time playing for Penn field hockey are qualities that they hope pass on to younger teammates, and their experience and leadership is something that the team will need to rely on in order to achieve their goal of seeing an Ivy League championship.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away from my time at Penn is how to take criticism and learn from it,” Kneizys said. “Even in my job over the summer and in classes, just taking criticism well and learning from it is the biggest thing. Resilience is another big thing. Especially the game today, even when you’re not doing your best, you’ve got to be able to bounce back.”

“I just really love this team. The whole team dynamic, everyone having everyone else’s back. You don’t necessarily get that on every team, but you definitely get that here,” Tilton said. “Just that sense of family and having friends for life is something that I’ll definitely cherish.”

The captains will continue their campaign for an Ivy title by leading the Quakers against conference opponent Dartmouth on Friday in Hanover.

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