Classic sports mantra teaches coaches and athletes alike that no game is more important than the next in an effort to downplay potentially distracting hype. But in this case, the men’s soccer team and its UPenn counterparts are finding it difficult to conceal their excitement.
The Bulldogs (6-2-3, 2-1 Ivy) head to Philadelphia this Saturday for a battle between two teams deadlocked in the Ivy standings. The Elis and the Quakers (8-3, 2-1) are mired in a four-team tie for second with Cornell and Dartmouth.
“I think all of [the Ivy League] teams put a lot of attention on the seven [league games],” Yale head coach Brian Tompkins said. “It’s really two seasons, and a lot of us prefer to play our best during the Ivies. That makes for very tight, closely contested games throughout the season. The league is not easy to win.”
In just four weeks, the Quakers have already experienced the highs and lows of Ivy League play. After excelling in the non-conference season, Penn — ranked as high as 18th in the nation– started off the Ivies in dubious fashion, suffering a 2-1 upset at the hands of Cornell.
The Quakers rebounded against Columbia, 1-0, the next week. But it was their thrilling double-overtime victory over reigning league-champion Dartmouth, 1-0 — which ended the Big Green’s nine game winning streak and two-year dominance over the Ancient Eight — that has the Quakers thinking big things.
“This past weekend, we faced a strong Dartmouth team that was full of confidence based on their recent run,” Penn head coach Rudy Fuller said. “It was a tremendous game between two very good teams and we were fortunate enough to get the break that won it. Obviously, the team was pleased to get the win, but they were well aware that there are more games to play this season, beginning with this weekend against Yale.”
The Bulldogs and Quakers not only share the same league record, but similar playing styles as well. Both teams possess talented yet inconsistent offenses that rely heavily on contributions from younger players. Fuller said the teams’ fluid style of play should make for an exciting contest.
“Both teams like to play an attractive, entertaining game so I am sure the fans in attendance will enjoy themselves,” Fuller said.
The Bulldogs, playing their first Ivy League road game of the season, must bring the same amount of intensity that they have exhibited at home games. But as Tompkins explained, playing on the road might actually help the Elis with their concentration.
“Sometimes it’s easier for players to focus on the game when they are on the road, especially during midterm season,” Tompkins said. “There are less distractions, making it easier to get yourself mentally prepared.”
Forward Josh Block ’07 said leaving campus as midterms wrap up should be good for the team’s state of mind.
“Coach gave us a couple days off to get focused and take care of academics,” he said. “Now that midterms are done, going away from campus does really serve as a way to break free from distractions.”
Regardless of how the Bulldogs react to playing on the road, Fuller said the Elis will still be a very dangerous squad.
“Coach Tompkins is one of the best coaches around and he has his team firing on all cylinders,” Fuller said. “They are a very talented team that believes strongly in what they are doing and that they can win every game they play. Belief and talent are a dangerous combination, and I would expect that we’ll have our work cut out for us on Saturday.”
The game has all the makings of a well-balanced, entertaining contest with heavy Ivy League implications.
While Dartmouth ran away with the league crown last year, this season should prove to be a much tighter race. Brown is clinging on to a one-game lead, but there are four hungry teams right behind, biting at the bit to overcome the Bears. Fuller believes that this year, more than ever, the Ivy League has shown it is not a one-team league.
“There are a number of teams in the hunt for this year’s title and I’d be surprised if any of them weren’t confident in their ability to do so,” Fuller said. “The Ivy teams have proven that we can play with anyone this year, and I think our league deserves more than our automatic qualifier this season.”
Coach Tompkins agreed, saying the Ivies are re-emerging as an above-average conference.
“We have a history of having quality teams in our league, not just the league champion,” Tompkins said. “There was a time when the second place team would get accepted into the [NCAA] Tournament. That seems to have tailed off recently, but I don’t see any reasons [why it would not] happen again. This year, the second and even third place team deserves serious consideration.”