Despite the unfortunate 4-1 loss on the road at Harvard, the graduating class of Penn men’s soccer still managed to secure a memorable conclusion to the 2021 season and their careers of playing in the Red and Blue.
“As a collective, we wanted to prioritize just finishing off the season as well as we could," senior Anthony Rovito said. "We wanted to walk away winning that game. And unfortunately, it didn’t go that way.”
Harvard (8-5-3, 3-2-2 Ivy) arrived in peak spirits. Looking to wrap up its season on a three-game winning streak after a winless 2019 campaign, the Crimson thrived on the support of a senior night crowd.
Penn (7-6-3, 1-4-2) had much more to prove. It had been 25 days since Penn last scored, with the last goal coming from senior Matt Leigh against Temple on Oct. 19, and the Quakers were antsy to find the ball in the net and quell their goal-scoring drought.
Junior Nick Christoffersen started in goal after also making his last appearance in the win against Temple.
But Christoffersen was immediately tested. At five minutes, the ball would already find its way behind him. Harvard took a low-flying cross after a run through the right side of the field, which was touched in goal by Slovakian junior Martin Vician.
Maintaining its resolve became an early priority for Penn as they fought to level. And their persistence gave them plenty of chances.
A free kick awarded to Penn at a favorable distance from goal was contemplated by graduate student Joey Bhangdia, and seniors Rovito and Ben Stitz. Stitz ultimately took the shot at goal, but the ball took enough time in flight for Harvard keeper Oskar Nilsson to make the save.
At 13 minutes, Harvard grasped at another counter-attack. Former AS Monaco academy player Alessandro Arlotti received a cross from the edge of the penalty box, and after a patient first touch, netted the ball to double Harvard’s lead. Penn’s defense seemed to lag, suspecting a Harvard offside, but the goal stood valid.
Penn’s following attempts at goal flew with urgency. Bhangdia was consistent on forward pressure, but Harvard kept his efforts pinned behind at least two defenders in the final third. Stitz launched several long crosses and shots on goal as well, but they didn't convert. Leigh seemed like he had chances to score, but timing didn't click for the Quakers inside the box.
Without a goal, Penn’s commendable performance in controlling possession and keeping Harvard in its own half couldn’t be proved on the scoreboard.
“Sometimes scorelines don't really reflect the week-in and week-out," Rovito said. "The entire season, the collective group has worked so hard, and we've improved a ton from the beginning of the year to the end of the season. And unfortunately, that's just the sport."
The Crimson had been efficient with their chances, with both shots on goal converted. Penn had much work to do going into halftime.
As usual, Penn pressured immediately up the field at the outset of the second half.
But in the 47th minute, again following a Harvard transition, opening scorer Vician put another goal to his name after a perfect first touch on a long cross from the right — chipping the ball into a high arc that landed right into the net behind Christoffersen.
Despite the alarming opening scenes to what should have been a second half to bounce back, Penn fought to keep form, and would not allow another goal for 40 minutes.
Chances created by Penn through the second half ended with the ball frustratingly avoiding the goal. Penn would end the game leading in shots (20-13), shots on goal (7-4), and corners (11-0).
With four minutes left, coach Brian Gill subbed in seniors Rovito, Spencer Higgins, and Brendan Hanrahan to join their fellow graduating class on the field for the final time.
"It was really special. It was [3-0] at the time, but regardless of the scoreline, it was really nice to be able to go on for that last bit and have the rest of my class be out on the field there with me," Rovito said.
"Personally, as a guy who hasn't played very much — that was only my fourth appearance in a game — I was obviously excited to be on the field, and I wanted to make the most out of whatever opportunity I was given," Higgins said.
But in a sequence of events that played out almost like fiction, Penn would not return home empty-handed.
With two minutes left, the Quakers picked up yet another corner. Bhangdia launched the ball to the near post, where the resulting shot was deflected. RC Williams took a shot on the rebound from far out, and the effort was saved. But Higgins, well-positioned in the box, found the ball at his feet, and tapped the ball past the keeper who was still on his knees from the save just moments prior.
"It was really a surreal moment," Higgins said. "Because, I would dream about having the opportunity to score a goal, and to represent my school and my teammates, and all the work that I've put in; and, to have that opportunity — it was really just a surreal moment. And it's still hard to put into words all the emotions that I felt."
Bhangdia’s final corner of his Penn career had resulted in a score on the board for the Quakers, and Higgins would mark the end of the season with the most important goal of his career.
"I think it was capped off by Spencer Higgins scoring his first collegiate goal. That was really cool," Rovito said. "This is like a nice memory to have; I finished my final game of my collegiate career — my career as a whole — with my best friends in the program. So that was really special."
"It was just a really happy experience where I was really thankful that I was given the opportunity to get on the field; try to show what I could do," Higgins said. "And overall, if nothing else, I think that was a bright spot in my career and in the season. Even though we didn't get the result, we still went out fighting."
But it was too little and too late, as Harvard put up yet another goal on the other side of the field, leaving Penn to return home with a 4-1 loss stamped to the end of the 2021 season, and a sixth-place Ivy League finish.
"If you look at the stats; we outshot them, we had more corners than them, we had more dangerous chances, we forced their keeper to have more saves," Rovito said. "On the day, their chances just unfortunately went in and ours didn’t — and that's just sometimes how the game goes. But for the entire game, from the first minute to the last minute, we were in it. We fought; we didn't give up."
"Even though the results may not show it, I'm very proud of all the work that the team has put in," Higgins said. "It's been hard to adjust to the differences in the season versus previous seasons. But overall, I think we still did a good job in making sure that we were prepared for every game, we gave all that we could when we were on the field, and even though results don't show it — I think we can all look back and be proud of that."