As the old adage goes, the best offense is a good defense. Perhaps cliché, but for Penn women’s lacrosse, this really rings true.
While the back line of the Quakers (12-2, 5-1 Ivy) may not be the ones lighting up the scoreboard, they are still a driving force for the team’s dominant run. Having now won six in a row, No. 10 Penn has taken full advantage of its defenders’ impressive work in limiting opponents to 7.78 goals a game on approximately 24 shots.
And while this defensive unit may largely lack experience on paper, senior defender Megan Kelly thinks this is less important than the team’s evolution over the seasons.
“I think we don’t have a problem because last year, my junior year, we had lost all of our seniority. My sophomore year, our defense was otherwise entirely seniors, but then we lost everyone,” Kelly said. “So, I had to step up as a leader last year and learn how to teach the other girls. We’ve filled in the gaps and everyone has really stepped up.”
This young group, mainly sophomores and freshmen under Kelly’s command, has certainly impressed coach Karin Corbett thus far.
“I think that they are playing really well as a unit. They are communicating well and all doing their roles, and our goalie [senior Britt Brown] is stellar back there as the anchor,” Corbett said. “We really only had two kids that played last year in our defensive end, so I’m really pleased with how they’ve gelled as a unit.”
Aside from personnel, tactics have also changed significantly this season as the team has rolled out a brand new defensive scheme. The old standard of man-to-man defense was exchanged for a more fluid zone system, in part to adapt to the new shot clock rule. Having to change her defensive mindset, Kelly explained how this alteration has given them the upper hand.
“We have more of a protective mentality now because we know our solid defense will pay off, and after a minute and a half, it’s our ball,” Kelly said. “For me personally, I definitely reined in some of my checks just because it’s not worth a foul, especially when I’m by the crease. If we can just play solid team defense together we get the ball back, or force them to turn it over.”
This was not the easiest of transitions, requiring many to relearn their roles or take on entirely redefined ones. However, the transition has appeared pretty seamless, as the squad currently holds the fourth-best goals allowed average amongst all Division I schools.
“I think there’s a lot of trust between the coaches and players, and they believe that what we are putting forth is how we’re gonna beat our opponents,” Corbett said. “We adjust to what we feel is going to make us strongest on that day. They’ve really embraced that and are open to the changes that we’ve made.”
The zone formation has afforded some more flexibility to defenders, as players move in behind to cover others in more advanced positions. Sophomore Katy Junior has taken advantage of the newfound freedom, citing her confidence in Kelly and Brown, whose commanding play has brought her to second in the nation for save percentage.
“I’m very fortunate for the type of defense that we play because it allows me to take a lot of risks. They don’t always pay off but I always know my teammates are there for me,” Junior said.
While the Quakers are now finding the back of the net more consistently, winning the past three games at 13, 17, and 17 respectively, this was not always the case. When scoring was harder to come by, stellar defensive performances gave Penn enough of an edge to claim victories behind merely seven and nine goals. Junior added that the front line often gets sparked by play in the back, leading to more fruitful attacks.
“We are such a close unit that the attack definitely feeds off the energy of the defense,” Junior said. “They get so excited when we come up with a big stop or get a huge interception and come up with the ball and it gets us going on the attack.”
Having found their rhythm with new players and tactics, this plucky group of defenders will have to hold out just a little bit longer. After a weekend that included a victory over Harvard and a loss by Cornell, Penn now holds control over its own destiny in its mission to capture Ancient Eight hardware this coming weekend when Yale visits Franklin Field.
Limiting opponents’ scoring is just as important as creating your own team’s scoring. With that in mind, maybe these defensive stalwarts can carry the Quakers to a title and beyond.