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In her fourth season at the helm for Penn women's soccer, coach Nicole Van Dyke has led the team into Ivy League championship contention this season.

Credit: Son Nguyen

Legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant’s old adage, “offense sells tickets and defense wins championships,” is an oft-repeated phrase in the modern sports world. The thinking is that, while offense may be flashy and exciting, solid defensive play – less noticeable, but more steady and predictable – forms the foundation of successful teams.

For Penn women’s soccer, this season has been all about steady defensive play. It currently leads the Ivy League in two scoring categories, with 20 goals for and just 3 goals allowed. 

This Saturday, the Quakers (10-1-1, 3-0-1 Ivy), currently on a four-game win streak and nine matches without a loss, will travel to New Haven, Conn. to battle a familiar foe in Yale (6-5-1, 1-3 Ivy). 

Sitting atop the Ivy League standings, Penn has been dominant defensively this season, having allowed just three goals in 12 games. Its only loss this season came against then-No. 13 NC State in a game decided by a single goal in the opening minutes. 

Moreover, the Quakers haven’t allowed a goal since Sept. 9. Junior goalkeeper Kitty Qu ranks fourth in the nation in goals allowed per game, letting in just 0.293 a match. For coach Nicole Van Dyke, defense is a crucial part of her coaching philosophy. 

“I just think that in order to win games and be successful, [you have to] play good defense to get the ball back. We focus on trying to do that [so we can have] more opportunities to attack. [For our defense,] everyone has a role, and I think that everyone does a good job at their role,” Van Dyke said. “We’re having success defensively, so we continue to believe in it. The other thing is defending isn’t just something that happens overnight — it takes a lot of effort.”

Offensively, the Quakers have been extremely consistent and productive. Nonetheless, Van Dyke is continuing to look for other ways to improve in attack. 

“[We’re practicing] keeping possession and being better in transition moments. We are winning the ball in good spots, and we want to be able to keep the ball for one or two passes or be able to counter teams,” Van Dyke said. 

Regardless of how the season ends, Penn has already achieved more success this season than last. Van Dyke attributes this to the team’s dedicated, hardworking culture. 

“Everyone is truly bought in, comes to practice, and commits themselves to making other people better. So whether you’re playing five minutes or 500, there’s an expectation that you want to get better,” Van Dyke said. “[We want] practice to be harder than the games so that when we get to the games, the games are easier."

This weekend against Yale, the Red and Blue will need to continue their strong defensive play. Highlighted offensively by junior midfielder Noelle Higginson, the Bulldogs also boast a strong defense that has allowed just 1.15 goals per game so far, and one goal per game in Ivy play. 

Given Yale’s defensive strength, Penn will need to be able to create as many opportunities as it can against a tough Bulldog defense. Van Dyke has stressed in practice some points of emphasis specific to Yale.

“Yale sometimes plays three at the back, sometimes they play four at the back, so we’re just making sure that we’re ready for that,” Van Dyke said. “We really focus on us during the week and really throw in a couple small tweaks about the opponent, usually more so from an attacking standpoint so we can know how to break them down.”

At the end of the day, the fourth year coach maintains that the Quakers always have the same mentality each game.

“Every game brings another set of opportunities and another set of challenges to find a way to score and to defend their top players,” said Van Dyke. “Every game in the Ivy League is like the World Cup. We never take anything for granted.” 

As the Quakers travel to Connecticut to play in Reese Stadium this Saturday, they’ll need more than Bear Bryant prescribed: both the defense and the offense must show up to play.