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With everyone on the team buying into the system this year, Penn women's soccer has reaped the benefits.

Credit: Son Nguyen

What the hell happened?

Last year, Penn women’s soccer was mired in the middle of the Ivy League. The Quakers finished 5-8-3 overall and 3-3-1 in conference play, good enough for fifth place. They had one of the best defenses in the league, but only scored 10 goals in 16 games, including just five in league play. The leading goal scorer, then-senior Erica Higa, had just three goals.

This year, the Red and Blue brought back the majority of that team and were pegged to finish sixth in the conference. No one was expecting much from them.

So, again, what the hell happened?

Everyone bought in. That’s what happened.

“I think that this year, every single person on this team, all 30 of us have bought into the mission and the goals that we set early on,” senior midfielder Allie Trzaska said. “And we just hold each other more accountable this year.”

The Quakers (13-1-1, 5-0-1 Ivy) have been absolutely dominant all year long. They lead the Ancient Eight in both goals scored, with 30, and goals against, with four. They’ve recorded 12 shutouts, tied for second-best in program history. The Red and Blue have hummed along like a well-oiled machine, simultaneously stymieing opponent’s offenses and finding the gaps in their defenses.

Sure, there have been some schematic tweaks. Coach Nicole Van Dyke cited two specific changes that have worked wonders for the team this year: moving junior Emily Sands up to forward and pushing senior Camillia Nwokedi from outside back to center back. Those moves help to explain some of the on-field production the team has seen, but there’s more to this year’s team than just that.

It’s the buy-in from all 30 players, the desire to put everything on the line each time they step foot on the pitch, the commitment to conditioning and training, that has made all the difference.

“This year I think we have complete buy-in,” Van Dyke said. “People came back fit, they’re working extremely hard from start to finish, and I think right now we’re in a really good place.” 

It’s not like this culture change happened over night either. This is a process that takes time, and there’s a reason that this year’s senior class, the first class to play all four years under Van Dyke, is leading the charge.

“You have the majority of the team buying in and then you bring these new freshman in, it’s all they know,” Trzaska said.

“It really only takes one person,” senior forward Sasha Stephens added. “If I see that Allie’s bought in, then I have nothing but to do the same. It’s kind of a domino effect in that sense, where you see that everyone is kind of on the same page, and if you’re not on that bus, then you’re going to get left behind.”

And that mentality has continued to grow into the season. As the goals and the clean sheets piled up, the team developed confidence, not just in their individual abilities but the collective talent of the group.

“I think knowing that we have such a strong defense behind us gives us freedom offensively to be able to play the way we want to play,” Sands said. “Everyone has our backs, so there’s really cover on all places on the field.”

So when the team takes the pitch on Saturday night against Princeton in the biggest game of the year, they’ll be ready to go, from the senior captains to the last player on the bench. Because that’s the only way they’d have it.