Students from all around the world travel to Penn to study in Philadelphia and carve out a home away from home. For some members of the women’s soccer team, though, a little bit of home has followed them here.
Coach Nicole Van Dyke and the Quakers began their season in August, marking the start of her fourth season with the team. When she took over in 2015, the team was full of recruits brought in by the previous coaching staff, but now she’s had the opportunity to make the team her own. Part of how she's been able to do that has been through her strong personal and athletic connection to the state of California.
“Originally when I took over the program, it was so late that junior class were all kids that we had relationships with … and that we had known from the area, and we kind of just continued that trend,” Van Dyke said. “California’s a really big state, and it’s known as being a hotbed for women’s soccer. So we try to just use those relationships and find the top talent that we can bring to Penn.”
Van Dyke grew up in the Golden State and held several coaching jobs there before traveling east to lead the program at Penn. Most recently, she was an assistant coach at Stanford, where she helped guide the Cardinal to three NCAA College Cup berths and contributed to bringing in the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country in 2015.
Although Penn women’s soccer isn’t historically as strong of a program as Stanford, Van Dyke’s priorities didn’t change when she switched from the Pac-12 to the Ivy League. She still wanted the best players possible, scouting national teams and elite clubs around the country. The best soccer players can come from anywhere, but a big part of recruiting is relationships.
“We just have relationships with club coaches and people that you trust, and so it just continues on from there,” Van Dyke said. “When I was at Cal State Bakersfield, we recruited a lot of Southern California kids and so [I] still have relationships with a lot of those club coaches.”
The team as a whole has 14 players from California and 16 from the rest of the world combined. The new freshman class is split almost down the middle: four from California and three not.
This culture permeates even further into the team’s DNA. Like many college coaches, Van Dyke had the opportunity to bring players and coaches she’d worked with in the past onto her staff at Penn. It should come as no surprise, then, that someone who has spent so long coaching on the west coast has a lot of connections out there.
Assistant coach Lizzy Johnson comes to Penn after coaching youth soccer in NorCal for six years, although her alma mater is Vanderbilt. Assistant coach Melissa Phillips' connection runs even deeper – she played for Van Dyke at Cal State Stanislaus, coached under her at Cal State Bakersfield, and assumed the head coaching position at Cal State Bakersfield when Van Dyke left for Stanford.
Now, they’re all in Philadelphia, and they know a thing or two about making the long trip from coast to coast.
“It’s always hard to leave home, especially when it’s 3,000 miles away,” senior captain and Burbank native Camillia Nwokedi said. “Philly has really become like a home away from home, and because we do have so many girls from California, it’s really our priority to make sure freshmen don’t have to worry about taking out the gear that they’re worried about getting settled in their classes and that we’re showing them the ropes."
However, don’t make the mistake of thinking every last player on the Red and Blue was born by the sandy beaches of Los Angeles or the foggy bay of San Francisco. For some, going home for break is just a SEPTA ride away.
Penn is fortunate that it has the resources to recruit a team from all corners of the world, and the women’s soccer program knows that it can’t just build a team from a single state. Not only does looking far and wide for soccer players ensure that the coaches can build the strongest team possible, but it also introduces different perspectives and key diversity that helps teams promote a positive culture and mindset.
“We always look locally, always try to get the top players to stay in the Philadelphia area, and I think now we’ve branched out a little more south,” Van Dyke said. “We try to obviously make it eclectic and recruit from all over the country, but I still think occasionally you have to have one or two or three kids from California coming in, and I’m sure that will probably continue on.”
The team doesn’t have any away games in California this season, but when it eventually does make the trek out west, its hosts had better be prepared, because the Quakers will be home.