The Penn men’s soccer team already knew it had earned a spot in the NCAA tournament when the players gathered in their Hollenback Center locker room Monday afternoon. The Quakers had been assured of that when they won the Ivy League championship on Saturday to book an automatic postseason berth.
Nevertheless, there was some tension in the room as the names of teams began to flash on the TV. When would Penn’s name be called? Who will the Quakers play? Will they get a home game?
Then, about a quarter of the way into the field, Penn found out it would play Providence in the first round. And seconds later, the room erupted into cheers when the Quakers learned the game would be at home – this coming Thursday evening at Rhodes Field. Just take a look at the video above.
“I would have to say that’s a little unexpected based on where we were in the RPI,” Penn head coach Rudy Fuller said. “But we’re happy to have a game at home in front of our fans at our field and I would expect a big turnout Thursday night.”
There is some precedent for a big crowd showing up to cheer on Penn in the playoffs. In 2010, during the Quakers’ last trip to the NCAA tournament, the Quakers earned a dramatic first-round win over Bucknell in front of the biggest crowd Fuller had ever seen at Penn.
“We love playing at Rhodes Field,” Fuller said. “Back in 2010, we had a thrilling result against Bucknell in overtime. And that was fantastic for the University and for the soccer community in Philadelphia. I would expect it to be a similar type of game and a similar type of atmosphere on Thursday.”
Stephen Baker was a freshman on that 2010 team. Now, he’s a senior that’s thrilled to bookend his sterling college career with two playoff appearances. And, of course, he’s still feeling the excitement from Saturday’s 2-0 win over Harvard that got the Quakers to this point.
“I’ve never felt so accomplished,” Baker said. “We had finally done what we were meant to do. It just felt like destiny. It was unreal.”
The Ivy League championship – Penn’s first since 2008 and the program’s first outright title since 1972 – certainly felt like a massive accomplishment, if only because of where Penn was earlier in the season. Playing a brutally tough schedule, the Quakers lost six straight games at one point. But once the Ivy League season began, they turned it on and they now go into the NCAA tourney having lost just twice in their last nine outings.
“The rough beginning was just a testament to how tough our schedule was,” Baker said. “We played a lot of quality teams that definitely helped strengthen as a group and make us a little more resilient.
“This group I’ve been playing with the last four years is unbelievable. And I wouldn’t want to win it with any other group. It’s a great way to end the regular season and hopefully we can make a run in the NCAA tournament.”
Making a deep run will certainly be difficult, and with an 8-8-1 overall record, Penn probably won’t be expected to get especially far, especially considering perennial powerhouse Maryland will be waiting for them in the next round.
But as former Philadelphia Union goalkeeper and current Penn volunteer assistant coach Chris Konopka said after the selection show ended: “Four wins gets us to PPL.”
Yes, the final four and national championship will be held at nearby PPL Park – the Philadelphia Union’s home stadium – on Dec. 13 & 15. If that’s not the ultimate motivation for the Quakers, then what it is?
“We’ve got to take it one game at a time, to use some coach-speak,” Fuller said. “But having an opportunity to play in the College Cup in your hometown is certainly a pretty big carrot on the stick. It’s a pretty big light at the end of the tunnel. But we’ve really got to focus on Providence. To any team we face from this point forward, I would imagine to the general public we’re going to be viewed as an underdog. And we’re fine with that.
“There’s a lot of confidence in our locker room and we’re looking to get started.”