With great chemistry, talent and skill, Penn’s 1988 field hockey team became the most successful field hockey team in Penn history.
After a down season in 1987, where the program went 7-8-1 overall, the 1988 team rebounded with a season that would be in the Penn record books for decades and cement them as the best all-time. The Quakers would end their season with a 14-3-1 record, which still stands as the most wins in a single season in program history.
The Quakers' 5-1 Ivy League record earned them a share of the Ivy League title with Dartmouth, which in turn guaranteed them an NCAA Tournament berth. Ranked No. 4 in the nation, the Red and Blue advanced to the semifinals, the furthest tournament run in program history. This tournament appearance was particularly special because the semifinals and final were hosted at Penn's own Franklin Field.
“We were also super excited because it's your home field, you do have your home locker room, you’re used to everything in Franklin Field, and it’s your home base as far as fans are concerned,” said Donna Mulhern Woodruff, a junior on the 1988 team.
After a bye in the first round, the Quakers faced their in-state rival Penn State in the second round of the tournament. After playing three overtime periods at Franklin Field, the Red and Blue defeated the Nittany Lions by a score of 2-1.
While this matchup was a major event for the Philadelphia media, it was also special for the team. Players from both teams were from Philadelphia and the surrounding areas, so they were playing against friends and high school teammates.
“We did fairly well against Penn State, and I think they were a little annoyed by that,” Woodruff laughed. “It’s always great if you have a good rivalry, going back and forth, to come out on the winning end. I know they weren’t too pleased with us.”
In 1988, Woodruff was one of six Penn players named first team All-Ivy, tying a program record for most in a single season to earn the status. Among the six was senior Nicky Hitchens, who was honored as one of the Ivy League Players of the Year. Woodruff was also named to the 1988 All-Tournament team.
The Quakers clearly had the talent that season to take them to the next level, but the main thing that made this team successful was their chemistry. They were more than just teammates; they were a family. The team had a large group of juniors, who had been able to grow together as players for two years before the 1988 season. That group was highlighted by Woodruff, Ellen Vagelos Masseur, and Carrie Vesley Horrigan.
The team also spent a lot of time together in the summer before the 1988 season on a team trip to the Netherlands. The week-long trip allowed the team to play against great competition, but more importantly, it helped the team bond.
“It was just a lot of really good people that all appreciated the opportunity we had at an Ivy League institution, but also we wanted to be very good in the sport we were playing,” Woodruff said.
While it's more of a rarity now, many players on the team played both field hockey and lacrosse at Penn, including Woodruff, Hitchens, and Horrigan. This year, only freshman Madison Jiranek plays on both teams. This meant that many of the players competed together year-round, allowing the team to grow closer.
“It can’t hurt that you’re with the same people, same focus, same schedules for that amount of time, and certainly getting to know our coaches,” Woodruff said.
The late Anne Sage was the longtime coach of both the field hockey and women’s lacrosse teams, and was honored by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association as Coach of the Year in 1988. While she was an extremely talented coach with a great mind for the game of field hockey, her presence was felt strongly in the athletics program as a whole.
“The beautiful thing is that Sage was just herself, and she let everybody around her be themselves,” Woodruff said. “She really brought out the best in each of us without making us all be the same. That was certainly her strength, she believed in our teams, but she also believed in women’s athletics.”
The best teams are the ones that have not only athletic skills, but a great connection between their players. Penn’s 1988 field hockey team combined them both to have the best season in program history.