It's the end of an era for Penn field hockey.
The five seniors – Liz Mata, Alexa Hoover, Gina Guccione, Jasmine Li, and Rachel Huang – are captains, four-year starters, skillful scorers, record-breakers, defensive walls, and, above all, leaders. On Saturday, they will play Princeton in what will be their final game together.
Given the Quakers’ (9-7, 4-2 Ivy) recent history against the Tigers (10-6, 6-0), it is truly just that the seniors end their careers against such a heated rival. The Tigers are playing for sole possession of the Ivy League championship for the 12th time in 13 years.
The Quakers will surely look to play spoiler, but there is more to Saturday’s contest than being a thorn in the Tigers’ side, according to Mata.
“This means a lot more for the program than just as a team," she said. "Historically, people have chosen between Penn and Princeton and they’ve seen Princeton as historic winners and they’ve seen us as historic underdogs.”
Initially the team's starting goalie, Mata will not be able to take the field for the Quakers on Saturday after suffering a season-ending knee injury. A leader both on and off the field and a four-year starter, Mata has consistently finished in the top half of the Ivy League in traditional goalkeeping metrics.
For her, the thought of being done with field hockey has begun to materialize as her days of leading the Quakers on the field have ended. That being said, Mata has passed on goalkeeping duties and has remained a vocal leader on the sidelines.
“It’s not really quite real yet. I’m in a weird position the last couple of weeks because I’ve been going to practice, going to games, but not really playing. In a way I’ve accepted that it’s the end of my career.”
Unlike Mata, forward Alexa Hoover is going to end her field hockey career on her terms, even if it means that she continues playing after graduating.
“It’s obviously a lot of work, it’s a Division I sport, but I wouldn’t change it for the world… I don’t know if I’ll be able to give it up that fast,” Hoover said, later hinting at a possible tryout with the national team.
Of course, Hoover has proven time after time that she is one of the best forwards in the nation. Hoover's record-breaking scoring is well acclaimed and she has adopted great selflessness to her game this season, making her an unyielding source of offense on this Red and Blue squad.
In addition to her future national team and potential Olympic aspirations, Hoover has admitted to being open to assistant coaching in conjunction with any graduate school enrollment. Despite trying to ignore the many emotions that come with playing in her final game with the Red and Blue, Hoover is aware that this is it for the Quakers’ senior class.
“It is really, really sad to be honest. I have been playing field hockey since I was 4-years old, so this has been my life for 17 years, and it is going to be really hard to give it up. My entire life I have been working to play in college, and now it’s going to be over in the blink of an eye.”
Hoover’s best friend and fellow forward, Gina Guccione, has likewise tried to remain unexpressive about the emotions of Saturday’s contest.
“I’m mostly focused on playing Princeton as it is. I’m not thinking of the end of my career right now. I think it’s important to approach the last game without interfering emotions about ending my career. Looking into Saturday I’m trying to be focused this week in practice and trying to implement the things coach is telling us to do.
“And once the last buzzer rings and my season and career are over, the emotions will probably come. But until then, I’m really focused on the last game.”
Guccione is a four-year starter and has significantly improved each and every season. She did not come to Penn with the same on-field experience as her teammates, but that did not stop her from becoming a fixture in a high-octane offense. Her 17 goals in the last four years are second only to Hoover's 67 among active Quakers.
She hopes to be remembered for the passion she displayed on the field but also the fun-loving and lighthearted leadership she provided off the turf. Moreover, she wants to leave a legacy as part of a 2018 senior class that made a uniquely sizable impact on the program’s trajectory.
“As a class, we all play a lot of minutes, we all have various roles that need us to step up in different parts of the game and I think we’ve done a good job doing so. We’ve helped push the program in the right direction and after leaving this season we want to make sure we’re still moving in the right direction and a win against Princeton will help that.”
Joining Mata, Hoover and Guccione as four-year starters is center defensive midfielder Jasmine Li, another crucial component of the Quakers’ current makeup. She helped lead the defensive renaissance over the last three seasons and graduates with 48 starts in her career.
The numbers do not jump off the page for Li, the team’s long-time left back. The positive effects of her play, however, are not up for debate. After switching positions this season, Li recently netted her first goal, adding another accolade to an illustrious career.
“I really hope that the players, younger players or even juniors, can think of my role on the team and use that to help them figure out their own leadership roles on the team. It doesn’t have to just be for next year’s captains, but also to be some type of role model they can think of, how they can help the team, how they can lead the team.”
Finally, there is Rachel Huang, the team’s third captain and midfielder. A starter since freshman year, Huang’s hallmark speed and tenacity on the ball are only matched by her friendly demeanor off the turf. Taking on a growing role each season, Huang is an indispensable part of the Quakers’ lineup in the midfield and has been among the team’s top playmakers the last two seasons.
As the inserter on penalty corners, Huang has helped to rejuvenate the team’s set pieces in recent weeks. More than anything, she wants to be remembered for her leadership qualities on and off the turf as well as her ability to thrive on this Quakers’ squad despite a lack of field hockey experience.
“First and foremost, as a captain who inspires people to be their best self on and off the field, and someone who loved their teammates. As a player, someone who came from humble beginnings and showed people that if you put your mind to something, anything is possible.”
There is surely enough reason for the Quakers to be ready and raring to go for Saturday – it is Homecoming, Senior Day, and their final game, after all – but the opponent is all the more reason for the team’s excitement. A win for the Quakers would be the ultimate poetic justice, as they look to thwart Princeton’s efforts at sole possession of the Ivy League title.
For all five seniors, Saturday will be an important opportunity for retribution for all the hardship the Tigers have caused for the Red and Blue, especially in the last two seasons. As Li said, Saturday’s goal is to make her last game “one to remember for good reasons.”
Whether they win or lose, the fate of the Quakers' season will be the same. That said, the result will not take away from the astounding legacy that this senior class has produced and one for future classes to follow. The time for the younger classes to shine is here, so says Guccione.
“As a younger player, you might not think these four years are going to go by so fast, but you need to understand that there is an end and you should have no regrets and go all out.”