Despite holding visiting Princeton scoreless to the 84th minute, the final whistle blew on a 1-0 loss to Penn men’s soccer after the Tigers finally broke through the tough challenge put up by the Quakers.
"I think the team is disappointed and frustrated, but overall know that they're a good group, and they have good players, and sometimes the season can be disappointing and frustrating while doing your best," coach Brian Gill said.
In what was its last time at Rhodes Field for the season, Penn (7-5-3, 1-3-2) presented an honorable farewell before the match to their seven graduating players — graduate students Joey Bhangdia and RC Williams; and seniors Brendan Hanrahan, Spencer Higgins, Matt Leigh, Fayez Merchant, and Anthony Rovito. Players were accompanied by family and friends as their career accomplishments were announced to the attending crowd.
"Princeton historically is always one of the better teams in the Ivy League," Gill said. "And so coming into this match, with them being the league leaders and just the nature of the games over time between Penn and Princeton, I think the players were really looking forward to and motivated to play a good game, considering it was senior night as well. We were looking to give ourselves a great performance and continue to compete through the Ivy League schedule, and I think, by large, our team did that."
The Quakers were headed into the match tasked with barring Princeton (11-5-0, 6-0-0) from clinching the Ivy League title on Penn home grounds.
“We knew we were going up against quality opposition,” senior keeper Dane Jacomen said. “They had won six games in a row coming into the game, so we knew that they were in good form. And honestly, we were up to the challenge. We just wanted to go out there and win the game, even though we were mathematically eliminated from Ivy League contention, and it seemed as though Princeton had everything to play for; we still were very much going for the win in the game."
As such, the match began with immense focus from both sides. Both teams totaled 10 throw-ins in the first five minutes as players were keen on dispossessing their opponent by any means.
The opening moments foretold a very physical match to come, with fouls served evenly between the two teams. And with the significance of Senior Night to play for, the graduating players proved well their impact on the field.
One of Penn’s biggest chances of the night occurred in the 15th minute, as Penn’s forwards caught the Princeton keeper in a mistake. Senior Matt Leigh intercepted a low-flying goal kick and faced an open goal, but his shot bounced wide and hit the left goalpost.
Graduate student Joey Bhangdia was unmistakable in his presence on the pitch as well. In an improvement from the loss away at Brown, each of Bhangdia’s runs along the wing were also followed by runners through the midfield, allowing him choices in progressing the ball towards goal. Several more attractive chances followed with Bhangdia positioned wide and prepared to receive long passes, especially from fellow graduate student RC Williams.
Penn’s defense seemed well-prepared against Princeton’s set pieces. The Tigers had been in a habit of scoring headers from corners in the past few games, but they didn’t manage any against the Quakers.
"I think that the team has a high level of confidence in itself to defend, which is important," coach Gill said. "The players that have been here over the last couple years, and our current players, do take a high sense of pride and value in creating an identity that is tough in their defensive setup. And so whether that's Dane making saves or the guys in front of him making plays defensively to block shots, crosses, and interrupt play in and around them, I just think it's all comes back to sort of what they want their identity to be as a team and how we want to structure that as a program."
Princeton showed up with their characteristic long-range passes to progress the ball quickly up the field. However, Penn’s defense locked down on their final third as the Tigers couldn’t finish their chances to score.
Penn tested various options in their offense. Charlie Gaffney and Kai Lammers also tried at goal in the first half. Stas Korzeniowski attempted his typical run through the midfield but found himself dispossessed before reaching a chance at goal.
But Princeton, which had scored in the first half in four of its past five Ivy League matchups, struggled to break through Penn’s defense as many other teams have realized while visiting Rhodes Field. The Tigers managed eight shots in the first half, four of which were saved by Jacomen. He finished with five saves, which placed him back at first place for save percentage in the Ivy League.
In the last three times Penn played at home, both teams went into halftime with no score. Any goal would have to arise from a break in either defense, but neither team seemed willing to give up their persistence into the second half.
“The speed of play really picks up when you're in some of these Ivy League games,” Jacomen said. “There's always an extra intensity whenever the stakes are highest.”
The only goal of the match came from open play by Princeton. After winning possession from midfield, Princeton pressured its way near the penalty box and made a shot that Penn deflected. Princeton tried again, passing the ball back and pushing it up the left wing instead. The Tigers launched a cross that was received as a shot hitting the top right crossbar, but a header by Walker Gillespie on the rebound notched the first and only goal of the game.
Penn had held the Ivy League leaders in a tough matchup to the 84th minute, but ultimately, the scoreline remained stiff against proving the hard effort of the Quakers.
"It definitely shows that we are a team that can go toe-to-toe with any team that we play, in any game we play," Bhangdia said. "We knew coming in that Princeton was a good second-half team, and I think throughout the game, we did have a good amount chances, we created a lot for ourselves, and sometimes in games, it doesn't always go your way. You don't always get that final ball, that final pass right; that final shot."
In the face of heartbreak, coach Brian Gill immediately huddled his players after full-time, and the players left the field earlier than usual.
“Something that Coach Gill has stressed a lot to us -- It's something that we're kind of taking upon ourselves as upperclassmen -- is to continue to push a certain standard in training and to push the intensity on the training pitch. Because ultimately, the week that we're able to put together there is going to dictate how well we perform come Saturday. So I think the next focus for us is just to come out and put together a couple complete training sessions, and then go into Harvard with the strongest mindset as possible just to go out and win the game.”
"With competitive training, putting together good sessions, still watching film as much as we can, having good scout and being attentive to that, we're gonna put ourselves in the best position to one, have a good mentality going to Harvard and get a win and two, to actually go and perform when we get up there," Bhangdia said. "So I think just keeping everything as normal as possible, and keeping our routines is the biggest thing we can do to help ourselves."
While the Tigers celebrated an Ivy League title on the Quakers’ home ground, Penn presented Princeton with perhaps one of its most frustrating challenges of its past few matches. The Quakers will conclude its season on the road against Harvard (7-5-3, 2-2-2).