Part of the reason that old adages become tired ones is that each is laced with more than just a hint of truth.
The timeless sports cliché “defense wins championships” is no exception, especially as it pertains to Penn women’s lacrosse.
The Quakers enter their next game against Northwestern as the No. 5 team in the country according to the Women’s Division I Media Poll, and their 9-1 record tops the Ivy League. Led by stars such as juniors Gabby Rosenzweig and Erin Barry and sophomore Zoe Belodeau, the Penn offense has been dynamic, but the unsung heroes on the defensive end deserve just as much credit for the Red and Blue’s blistering start.
Giving up just 8.11 goals per game, Penn possesses the eighth best scoring defense in the country, and keying that dominance is the play of the Quakers’ two senior captains, Katy Junior and Lauren O’Mara, as well as the ascension of junior goalkeeper Mikaila Cheeseman.
After establishing herself as one of the better stoppers in the conference last year, Cheeseman has taken her game to another level this season, as her .533 save percentage ranks fifth in the country and first in the Ivy League. Especially given Penn’s plethora of one-goal games this year, every single one of her saves has mattered, and the confidence that she gives to the rest of the team cannot be overstated.
“Cheeseman has been amazing,” O’Mara said. “Her growth has been incredible, watching from her freshman year to now, her junior year, she is absolutely killing it on the field, and her confidence has just grown, and it brings everybody else’s confidence up. She’s been coming up with huge saves throughout the year. She always seems to get the save that we need.”
Cheeseman attributes much of her improvement to the teachings of goalie coach Gina Capicchioni, but she is also quick to credit the capable and experienced defenders that surround her.
“With my defense being so great in front of me, I want to be the best that I can be for them,” Cheeseman said. “The fact that they have confidence in me gives me so much more confidence in myself.”
The confidence of which Cheeseman speaks reflects the effectiveness of Junior’s and O’Mara’s captaincies this year.
Junior has been a starter on Penn’s defense from the moment she stepped on campus four years ago, and since that moment, she has amassed countless accolades including All-Ivy recognition and a selection to the Tewaaraton Award Watch List. According to O’Mara, she’s the “best defender on the team, hands down.”
Of course, O’Mara, with over three years of starting experience, 56 career ground balls, and 35 caused turnovers, is plenty capable in her own right, and their play styles complement each other well. According to O’Mara, Junior operates as a bona fide shut-down, one-on-one defender, while O’Mara serves in a helping role, ready to communicate, hedge, and slide if need be.
The fact that they both play the same position undoubtedly contributes to the success of Penn’s defense this season, but it’s the unique interplay between their personalities that has allowed them to maximize their leadership abilities across the entire team.
When asked to describe the relationship between their leadership styles, both Junior and O’Mara pointed to a personality test administered earlier in the year. In nearly every metric, the two captains found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum. While Junior scored high for instinctiveness, quick-thinking, and directness, O’Mara’s test revealed a calm, deeply logical approach.
However, these differences have not proven to be problematic whatsoever. Instead, as proof that opposites really do attract, Junior and O’Mara feel that their differences are their greatest advantage as captains.
“Lauren and I have a really great dynamic,” Junior said. “We kind of balance each other out, and that definitely translates on and off the field. She’s definitely been so helpful to me. She’s always there to offer that calming, logical presence. She provides a different perspective from me, which has been so valuable.”
“We’re very different, but we kind of form a dynamic duo because of it. We love working together, and we know how to work together," O'Mara said. "Between what each of us brings to the table, our goal is to bring energy and enthusiasm every day, while stressing the hard work mentality.”
According to fellow defensive stalwart Cheeseman, the two captains have more than met their expressed leadership goals, as through their examples, they have taught that leadership extends beyond the captaincy.
“They have done an amazing job as leaders this year, but both of them have been acting as captains even before this year,” Cheeseman said. “They’re not new to leadership, and, just by being exposed to Katy and Lauren, all of us have really grown as leaders.”
Although the team’s leadership is by no means limited to the defensive end of the field, the fact that the two captains play on that side of the ball has assuredly influenced the Quakers’ dominance on that end, and to Junior, that’s no coincidence.
“We have and have always had great attackers, but the Penn program has always been focused on defense, and I think that having Lauren and I, both defenders, as captains, really helps emphasize that identity.”
That’s some unfortunate news for the opposing Ivy League attackers this year.