The Harvard men's soccer team faces an early bump in its road back to the Ivy League title when it opens its season against Penn tomorrow at Ohiri Field.
The Quakers-who have their eyes on Harvard's crown-are an experienced bunch who return 11 starters from last season's second-place finisher.
"They're a scrappy, hard-working type of team," said sophomore Paul Cantagallo. "Last year they kind of forced us into a scrappy game, and I definitely look for them to do the same on Saturday."
Last season Penn broke out of its traditional Ivy League doormat mold to become one of the Ancient Eight's most dangerous squads.
Despite beginning the season 1-5, the Quakers were able to turn it around, amassing a 4-3 league mark to tie Cornell and Yale as the runner-ups to first place Harvard. Penn went 7-1-1 in its last nine contests.
Last season's turnaround in Philadelphia would have been impossible without the play of Ivy League Rookie of the Year Mike O'Connor in goal. Harvard's players are hoping that off-season knee surgery can slow O'Connor down, at least for one game.
"The reason they're so highly touted was because of their keeper," said sophomore Ryan Keeton. "But we got two goals by him, so he didn't seem much different to us."
Coming off its first winning season since 1984, the Quakers are hungry for an Ivy title. Standing in its way is a formidable Crimson bunch that returns its leading scorer in captain Tom McLaughlin and a goaltender who amassed an 11-1 record and 0.78 goals-against-average last season in junior Jordan DuPuis, as well as a balanced supporting cast.
"We want to get out on the field and show everyone what we have," Cantagallo said. "All we've been doing is playing each other so everyone is just excited about finally playing another team."
This team does have some question marks. The absence of two starters-sophomore Andrew Lundquist, who will sit because of a red card, and junior Lee Williams, who is sidelined with an injury-should make the game more competitive.
This first game should also give some indication of how well the Crimson handle the pressure of being number one. With the success of last season's nationally ranked team, which shocked B.U. in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Hartford in overtime, knocking Harvard off its pedestal will be the focus of every Ivy opponent the Crimson faces.
"The pressure's there but most of us are used to it," Cantagallo said. "We've talked about it and we know everyone's gunning for us, but we're ready for it."
This may be one of the most balanced Ivy League seasons in years. With upstart Penn looking to play David to Harvard's Goliath, Saturday's matchup should presage things to come in the Ivy League soccer season.