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Senior forward Sasha Stephens came back on defense to make a huge play, clearing the ball from the center of the box.

Credit: Naati Hamda

Scoring on Penn women’s soccer is notoriously difficult. With its fifth shutout of the season, the grit and toughness of this team’s defense was on full display at Rhodes Field on Saturday night.

Although the Quakers couldn’t find a way to put the ball in the back of the net in their 0-0 draw against Ivy rival Harvard, there were moments that reminded onlookers of what this promising Penn team is capable of.

The Red and Blue (6-1-1, 0-0-1 Ivy) came into this game hot, having scored 15 goals on the season and riding a four-game win streak. The offensive production didn't continue, but the team’s defensive prowess did. Not only did junior goalie Kitty Qu repeatedly step up, but the entire defense communicated effectively and suppressed the Crimson attack, allowing Harvard (3-4-1, 0-0-1) only 12 total shots.

“I think the reality is that once we got going, we were the better team,” coach Nicole Van Dyke said. “Second half we came out, we were a step quicker, we anticipate more we had more numbers around the ball, so I think we just started out a bit flat."

When the teams first took the field and commenced conference play, a little wind was let out of the sails of the Quakers — the high expectations set by their non-conference offensive output was tempered by a mere three shots in the first half. An uninformed spectator wouldn’t have known that Penn came into the game with a better record, or on a winning streak.

That all changed in the second half, although the home team didn’t get a goal to show for it. The Quakers came out of the half with a far greater sense of urgency and passion then they’d shown before. They took the attack to Harvard, and had a few passes been slightly more on-target or a few foul-calls gone the other way, the result of the game would likely have been quite different.

In fact, even when it looked like the opponents from Cambridge had a shot to take control, they didn’t. A few times, Harvard found its way through the lock-down Penn defense and appeared to have a clean look, only to have it snatched away at the last moment by a Penn defender.

“That’s the backbone of any good team, we may not have been able to put the ball in the back of the net tonight, however you have to work really hard to score against our girls,” Van Dyke said. “Sometimes it’s just that little bit more risk that we have to take to score that goal.”

The most stunning of these strong defensive performances came early in the second half, when a rare misstep appeared to have left a Harvard attacker with a clear shot in the box. Senior forward Sasha Stephens came to the rescue, leaping in front of the ball and clearing it off the line.

“We want to leave everything on the field and give it our all at all times,” Stephens said. “I did it for my team and I will risk any body part to make sure the ball is not going in the goal. I think that the on the field camaraderie that we have just drove me to do that … and I’m glad I did because we ended up not losing the game.”

That play was indicative of the rest of the match — for fans of defense, it was a masterclass. Fans of the Quakers, though, were left wanting more.

Still, this 6-1-1 start matches the best in program history and through eight games, the one without scoring is more likely the anomaly then the seven in which the offense clicked. Games against Ivy League rivals are meant to be tougher, and the Quakers will look to learn a lot from this one.

“That’s one of the things that makes this conference so special, that there is no conference tournament … you’re not saving yourself for anything,” Van Dyke said. “We gotta raise expectations a little higher, it’s hard I think going into your first conference game off of a winning streak, and if that means we go on and get a draw tonight and win our next six games, then I’ll take a draw tonight.”

When the team faces off against Cornell in Ithaca next week, it’ll be a new sort of test. Although the Big Red were dead last in the 2017 season, the Red and Blue have yet to prove they can score on an Ivy defense.