It’s a problem unique to college athletics: every year, teams lose starters due to graduation and are forced to fill those spots. The result is teams often showing different tactical identities each year.
So when a team loses three of its four leading offensive players, including the best offensive field hockey player in program history, its offensive identity is bound to change. And that's exactly the situation that Penn field hockey (3-3) finds itself in this season after the loss of Alexa Hoover, Gina Guccione, and Rachel Huang, who all graduated as members of the class of 2018.
The backbone of last year’s offensive unit, these three seniors represented nearly half of the seven players who started in all 17 games for the Red and Blue last year. Hoover, who was recently named the Director of Operations for Penn field hockey, finished her collegiate career last season with 68 goals and 163 points, the most in program history and fourth all-time among Ivy League players. Guccione finished her senior season with the second-most goals and points on the squad, with 7 and 15, respectively. Huang played a key role as the team’s primary inserter on corners, feeding balls in to set up the stopper and shooter on penalty corners.
Simply put, it’s a tough act to follow.
“The nice thing about working with Rachel, and Hoover and Gucci[one] is that, over time, by the time they were seniors, they had a really good understanding of our offensive scheme,” coach Colleen Fink said. “Now we have to get more acclimated to breaking things down more than we have the last two to three years.”
What the Quakers have in their favor is knowing what offensive style suits them. Penn has always been the team with a “high speed, fast break” offensive unit. For Fink, who is in her ninth year as Penn's head coach, the question has never been about whether she has the right personnel. The talent is there. It simply comes down to how well her staff and players can communicate to execute the offensive vision.
While the loss of veteran starters can be viewed as a setback, it’s also a chance for the Quakers to improve aspects of their offensive system as they adapt their newer starters to it.
"We’re making some offensive schematic changes as we speak,” Fink said. “Hopefully that will catch some people off guard in terms of creating numbers up offensively and dialing in a little more to set patterns and set pieces. I don’t think ... anyone watching film has gotten a glimmer of what [we’re] capable of.”
That opportunity for growth affects all parts of the lineup, upperclassmen and freshman alike. An example of this is senior center back Paige Meily; she made her impact on the field as the team’s stopper, trapping balls often passed from Huang and setting up Hoover to make a formidable trio on penalty corners. Fink points out that without that Hoover and Huang, the opportunity opens up to move Meily from being solely a stick-stopper to a player that can pass or shoot in the short corner game.
As a result, the senior is now an asset for the offensive unit on set pieces as well, having just scored her first career goal in Sunday's win over Drexel.
Nevertheless, the early part of the season is bound to be an adjustment period for the Quakers. In their first five non-conference games, Penn has scored just three goals against its opposition. At this time last year, albeit against different opposition, Penn had scored seven goals in its first five games.
“I think we’re still developing in it, and we’re still trying to sort through some things,” Fink said. “It’s something we’re shining a pretty bright light on in this early part of the season and something we’re trying to correct and develop."
And after the talent on this offensive unit learns to execute its vision, the team will be shining brightly on its own.