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Cailly Carroll diving for a save in the NCAA College Cup.

By David Porter | When the athletes on the first Penn women’s soccer team to win an outright Ivy League championship look back on last fall’s achievement, a nearly six-mile-high mound of rock and ice will loom large in their collective memory bank. Thank head coach Darren Ambrose for that, as it was his idea to use Mount Everest as a metaphor for his team’s climb to the top of the league. And, trite as it may sound in the retelling, the mountain motif proved to be a major factor in the Quakers’ best season since the program achieved varsity status in 1991.

Of course, it would be nice to report that Ambrose’s players took a shine to the idea when he first proposed it back in August, but that would also be slightly inaccurate.

“When he first said it, we just kind of stared at each other and then looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, that sounds really great,’” junior captain Natalie Capuano said, a half-smirk crossing her lips. “But it really helped us focus on what we had to deal with that was right in front of us instead of looking too far down the road.”

Ambrose used a map of Everest to chart the team’s progress from base camp to Camps 1 through 4 and then the summit, with different goals corresponding to each level. During the season he quoted periodically from Jon Krakauer’s 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air, which described the ill-fated Everest expedition that took the lives of several climbers, and assigned the book to his captains to read. Gradually, the Quakers began to embrace Ambrose’s message of focusing on incremental goals rather than far-off ones—such as winning the Ivy title, something he said was not discussed until late in the season.

“It was about the approach to the whole season,” junior co-captain Eileen Larkin said. “The season before, we’d have down points where we’d let ourselves go. With the Brown loss we could have packed it in right there, but we didn’t.”

That 1-0 defeat in double overtime on October 28 in a game that could have clinched a tie for a share of the Ivy crown might have sent a less-focused team on a downward spiral, but Penn regrouped and beat Princeton 1-0 in overtime on a goal by sophomore Mara Fintzi, then defeated Harvard to claim sole possession of first place.

Before the Princeton game, the players presented Ambrose with a tinfoil model of Everest, with a marker representing where the team stood on the mountain. The seemingly small gesture spoke volumes to the coach, who had been fascinated with the overall concept since he was in grade school in his native England.

“We laugh about it now, but I walked out of the locker room and I couldn’t see us losing the game because we were so confident and they knew where they were,” he said. “The journey to the top never specified winning the Ivy League. It was something to help us take a team that was very young and teach them how to approach a season and how smaller goals can help achieve bigger goals. And I think that’s what we all got out of it.”

The season ended with a 2-0 loss to James Madison in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on November 16. Capuano and sophomore Jessica Fuccello were named to the All-Ivy first team, sophomore midfielders Fintzi and Jess Rothenheber made the second team, and Larkin and freshman Sarah Friedman received honorable mention. With his entire team expected back next season, Ambrose’s task in creating another successful motivational model may be a tall one.

Tyler Bernardini poured in 26 against UNC.

What figured to be a rebuilding season for Penn’s men’s basketball team was made more challenging when two of last season’s holdovers, junior Tommy McMahon and sophomore Darren Smith, were lost for the season with injuries. McMahon will sit out while recovering from an offseason hip surgery, while Smith suffered a patella (kneecap) injury in the opener against Drexel. Both had been counted on by coach Glen Miller to provide stability on a team that entered the season with precious little game experience.

In their absence, several freshmen emerged as major contributors in the season’s early weeks, none more so than guard Tyler Bernardini, who was second on the team in scoring behind senior Brian Grandieri at 13 points per game. Bernardini, a 6-foot-6 player who can score from outside or mix it up under the basket equally well, had a breakout game against No. 1-ranked North Carolina with 26 points in Penn’s 106-71 loss at the Palestra on December 4. Grandieri had 17 points for the Quakers, who played well enough to be within six points late in the first half before their inexperience and the Tar Heels’ suffocating defense took over.

“This game has to help from a confidence standpoint,” Miller said afterward. “There are still small things that young players have to pick up on. But when we executed, it worked, against the best there is.”

To their credit, the Quakers didn’t let the blowout affect them in their next game, a 69-61 win at Monmouth in which Grandieri scored 21 and Bernardini added 13.

Penn’s football team also had to make do without its full complement of front-line players, and the result was a 4-6 record, the first sub-.500 mark in Al Bagnoli’s 16 years at the helm (discounting 1997, when the Quakers were 6-4 but forfeited five wins for using an ineligible player).

Junior quarterback Robert Irvin never fully recovered from an offseason shoulder surgery and was replaced by senior Bryan Walker early in the season. Assorted injuries restricted senior running back Joe Sandberg to what amounted to half a season, though he still managed to be named to the All-Ivy first team along with senior defensive lineman Naheem Harris, senior center Brian Brazinski, and sophomore defensive back Chris Wynn.

Irvin has two more years of eligibility remaining, and freshmen running backs Michael DiMaggio and Bradford Blackmon could give Bagnoli the league’s most potent one-two punch in the backfield next season. After a 14-16 mark over the last three seasons that followed a 42-7 record in the previous five, something else is needed as well, Bagnoli acknowledged.

“We’ve been talented the last few years. We have good players, but we have to get that swagger back, that confidence,” he said.

David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.

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