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Penn field hockey senior captains Elita van Staden, Meghan Ward, and Gracyn Banks. Credit: Son Nguyen , Samantha Turner

After a third-place finish in the Ivy League last season, Penn field hockey kicked off its season in Chapel Hill, N.C. for the annual Ivy League/ACC crossover, where it faced No. 9 Louisville and No. 2 UNC. Despite losing both games, the Quakers were competitive. The DP sat down with senior captains Elita van Staden, Meghan Ward, and Gracyn Banks to talk about these games and the team's outlook for the rest of the season. 

Despite the winless start to the season, the captains feel that the team’s experience and offseason work will be key to bouncing back and making a run for an Ivy League title and an NCAA tournament bid.

How do you feel the atmosphere in the locker room right now? How has the team bonded since the start of the preseason?

GB: This season, compared to all the other ones, I feel like it's really different. Our team atmosphere is very positive and exciting. We got to know each other a lot better before the season started. We have a mental performance coach that we've been working with, and I think we took a lot of ideas from him on how to get to know each other better and on a deeper level, so that we can translate that to our connection on the field.

EV: To add to that, we’ve just had our first normal preseason for the first time in three years because of COVID. I think it was also one of the toughest preseasons we've had, and we really bonded through that and got on the same page. As Gracyn said, we did some mental performance work, especially during the preseason, to bond on a level beyond field hockey. It’s like Gracyn said, it does feel different this season than it has in the past just because I think we know each other a lot better, and I like to think that we're not just teammates, but we're all actually friends and we like each other.

MW: We just have a ton of trust. The locker room is super fun. We're all getting along, but we also all really trust each other. We have 7 out of our 11 starters who are all of our seniors right now, which I think has really contributed to the locker room feeling so great, because the seven leaders of the team are super bought in, and it just makes it easy for everyone else to follow along. We've all been here before. We've done this before. We all really like each other, so it has a great trickle- down effect.

What does the responsibility of being a team captain mean to you?

EV: I think as a team, we like to look at ourselves as a family. So, for us, keeping everyone unified, on the same page, and making sure that everyone is aware of our goals and keeping our progress going is important. I feel like that has been something that we've been building on throughout the spring and now focusing on the process to reach the goals that we want.

MW: I agree with all of that, especially with keeping the team on track. We have pretty clear goals that we want to achieve this season, so as a captain, it's sort of making sure that everyone stays on board, even if we face any setbacks. I also just want to be someone who can inspire my teammates to reach those goals and believe that they can do all the things that we set out to do from the beginning of the season.

GB: Yeah, I think the only thing I would add to that is that we are kind of like the voices of our teammates. So when it comes to vocalizing any problems, good things, bad things, or anything important, we are like liaisons to our coaches so that we can keep ourselves on track with all the goals that we have set.

Last year, the team was among the best in the country in most defensive statistics, but had a bit of trouble finding the back of the cage. Was this a point of emphasis in the offseason? What should we expect to see on both ends of the field this year?

MW: I mean, we've definitely had a focus on that. Right after the season ended, we knew that was something we had to work on. We've been working a ton on our offensive corners, because that's a place that we really need to finish. We have a lot of veterans on the forward line now, which is great because we all missed out on a season because of COVID. So I think coming into last year — not that we were unprepared — but we had a good amount of rookies on the forward line, so we were able to get that experience. We've been dialed in on gaining confidence because we have the skill, and sometimes we just need to go for it. We've been focusing on threatening attacking every single practice and I think even last weekend, despite only having one goal in the two games, I think the threatening attack shots on goal already looked way better than it did last season.

GB: Defensively, we're looking to focus on red zone defense. What we consider red zone defense is between the 25 and the circle's edge. So we're really trying to defend the circle rather than defend the actual goal because if they're not in the circle, they can't score — so that's been a huge focus. Also, tackling outside the circle, gaining possession and then connecting out from there as well. That's our focus defensively.

You recently traveled to Chapel Hill to start the season where you faced off against two top-10 opponents in Louisville and UNC and played competitive matches. What did the team take from this trip, and how do you think you can apply it to your upcoming games and as you go into conference play?

EV: I think that in the past, when we got scored on first, especially by higher ranked teams, we’ve slowed down because we kind of expected them to score first, and we expected them to beat us just because they are ranked higher than us. That's been a big part of our mental performance work: to know that we can beat them. Even this past weekend, I want to say the matches were a lot more competitive from our side because we didn't let up easily, and even if they scored, we would still continue to play our game, when in the past, we would fall into the trap of playing towards their style of play instead of focusing on our game plan. So I think that's definitely something I want to take going into this weekend and into our game against Northwestern again, because they're ranked first right now. So, it's exciting to see the progress we've made from facing these good teams to where we are now, and how we react to facing them.

MW: I think offensively, we obviously can always take a page out of someone else's book and UNC and Louisville are two teams that capitalize on every single opportunity that they get. In the Louisville game, it was pretty evenly matched, but they outscored us 4-1, so we've just been focusing on having that confidence to rip the shot, even if we might not be in the best spot on the field, because that's what they do, and just playing aggressive, threatening, not giving up on a single ball on the offensive 25, because that's how those two teams play, and they're successful that way. Like I've said already, we know we can do it, so we’ll be looking to play more in that style this weekend.

What do you think the ceiling is for this team and what are your goals for this year?

EV: We've been pretty clear from the start that our goal is to win the Ivy League and I do think, if we're being realistic, we have a very good chance to do that. We open up Ivy play against Princeton and Harvard the next weekend, so it's obviously gonna be a tough start. But that's our goal, and it's been our goal from preseason up until now, and that's never changed. And obviously if we win the Ivy League, we'll get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. And if it happens that we don’t win the Ivy, we're hoping to play well enough to get a wild card bid to go to the tournament. I think that we are closer to these goals this year than we have been for a while, so that's exciting.

MW: I don't think this team has a ceiling. Especially with our games last weekend, even though we obviously would have wanted to get a win in one of them, we played two super competitive games against two top-10 teams. There were some crazy scores in Division I this past weekend, so it's really going to be a toss up with who will end up in the top 15-20 teams. So, obviously our goal is to win the Ivy and go to the NCAA Tournament, but there's really no ceiling for this group.

GB: I would just say I'm really excited. I feel like our confidence going into this year is higher than it's ever been. I feel like our preparation leading up to this has been very clear cut. And we have very clear goals like we were saying, and I'm just excited. I feel like we go into every game thinking more about what our plan is and how we're going to enact our plan rather than thinking of other teams and how we should play a different game to each individual style of play. It's all about our game. So we're focused on our game and the process right now.