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Last weekend for Penn field hockey was a battle of the defenses in many ways — junior Paige Meily was up to the task in holding powerhouses Rutgers and UNC to four goals in two games. 

Credit: Zach Sheldon

In a fall season where many of Penn’s teams look poised to contend with the best, Penn field hockey struggled out of the gate in its opening weekend, falling to Rutgers by a score of 1-0, and to top-ranked UNC, 3-1.  

All in all, the weekend was a mixed bag for the Quakers (0-2), who returned eight of their 11 starters from last year for their home opener on Friday. Only two graduations and an injury to senior captain Jasmine Li prevented a full returning cast.  

Taking on the Scarlet Knights (4-0), the Red and Blue controlled play early on. In the first half, they put significant pressure on Rutgers’ backline and had a few nice opportunities on corners. However, despite the team's overall strong play, the Quakers still went into halftime locked in a scoreless affair. 

Obviously that lack of scoring was through no fault of the defense, which played admirably, led by junior center back Paige Meily. 

“We were trying to pressure early and make sure we were marking well and not giving them enough space by pressuring them when they received the ball,” Meily said of the defensive strategy.

After starting the 2016 season playing as center defensive midfield, Meily has since moved to the backfield, where she has been one of the team’s premier defenders and most important leaders. 

“I think we did pretty well for the start. We had good communication in general, which is something we really wanted to focus on,” Meily said. “Trying to block up the lines, we had a few problems where they would split us, but I think we adjusted well into the second half.”

The remaining 35 minutes of the game would see both defenses step up even more, resulting in an abundance of turnovers towards the midfield. 

For comparison’s sake, the first half’s combined 15 shots were followed by a total of three in the second frame. Unfortunately for the Quakers, one of those very few opportunities, a chip-in from the middle of the circle, would be enough for Rutgers to steal the victory.

“Rutgers is a good team. They play some really good perimeter defense. They did a much better job in the second half, but we [still] need to find a much better balance,” coach Colleen Fink said. “We have a tendency to bring the ball in close and create scoring opportunities.” 

Fink also wanted to see more variety in the types of chances generated by her squad, as most of Penn’s opportunities came from high in the circle.

Those 35 minutes that the Red and Blue played without taking a shot on goal against Rutgers would carry over and haunt the team on Sunday, as they found great difficulty setting up early against UNC (3-1), extending their drought to over 70 minutes. 

Coming off an impressive 2-0 victory over Penn’s Ivy League nemesis Princeton, the Tar Heels came out firing, scoring twice in the first 15 minutes. 

If not for the play of senior goalkeeper Liz Mata, the high-powered UNC attack would have done even more damage. But the senior was stout all game, recording eight saves on the day, including one huge stop on a penalty stroke that helped Fink decide not to put sophomore goalkeeper Ava Rosati in the net in place of Mata.

Unfortunately, the offense’s inability to register shots on goal made life difficult on the defense yet again, and senior captain Rachel Huang attributes the team’s cold sticks to team mentality.

“We definitely have the ability to score, to shoot, to play like any other team. But the belief in ourselves — that we belong on this field with the other team — [we lost that] in the second half against Rutgers… and it carried over into the beginning of the first half of this game,” Huang said.

“We weren’t satisfied with the way we were playing. We knew we could do better. We felt guilty and knew deep down that we doubted ourselves,” she continued.

The game went into halftime with UNC leading 3-0, but the Quakers would begin to click in a big way in the second half with four shots on goal and three penalty corners, one of which would lead to Penn’s first goal of the season.

Meily received the corner from Huang and set up for Hoover, whose shot would be redirected by Huang for the team’s first tally of the season. It was not only a beautiful goal, but also a major confidence boost for the Quakers.

“I think people were holding their breath a little bit,” Huang said of the team’s behavior before the goal. “Hopefully the goal has now given us the momentum for the rest of the season and the belief that we can do it.”

Despite receiving many more opportunities, Penn was unable to capitalize and eventually fell 3-1 to the Tarheels. For the Quakers, it was their second loss in three days, but the season outlook is still bright. 

After all, the team’s goal of winning the Ivy League championship is completely unchanged by the weekend’s results. Moreover, they will have another opportunity to prove their worth against top out-of-conference competition on Friday against Delaware (3-1).

The Blue Hens are the 2016 national champions — having taken down UNC in the finals — and have steamrolled Dartmouth and Princeton in the first eight days of the season. 

For the Quakers, Friday will be another exercise in improving self-confidence. At least, that will be the captains’ goal for the week, according to Huang.

“I think it’s just instilling in them a sense of belief. When I personally walk onto the field, I know that anything is possible and that I can do anything I put my mind to. That’s the type of mentality that [we have to have] as captains and as leaders. Our coach does it to us but now we have to filter it to the rest of the team. Hopefully, in the upcoming game, that’s what you will see.”