March 8, 2011

Sheehan Stanwick Burch: A Different Brand of Penn Lacrosse

by Sheehan Stanwick Burch |

Erin Brennan is one of several weapons on Penn's new, up-tempo attack -- a product of depth, head coach Karin Brower Corbett said.

© Hunter Martin

Last week, I focused on how the traditional powerhouses fared in some key, early-season matchups. This week, I want to shift the focus to a program that seems to be flying under the radar, despite the fact that it is a proven winner: Penn.

One of the bigger upsets this week was the eighth-ranked Quakers' 10-7 victory over visiting, third-ranked North Carolina. Penn and UNC have played competitive games over the last few years, but the Quakers seem to have the Tar Heels' number, leading the series 3-1, including Saturday's win.

The win over UNC should come as no surprise to women's lacrosse fans. Over the last four years, Penn has established itself as one of the top programs in Division I, even though few will count it among the marquis teams. The Quakers have won the last four Ivy League titles and have made it to the final four three of the last four years. Head coach Karin Brower Corbett has been at the helm for 13 years and has directed the steady and methodical resurrection of the Penn program.

According to Corbett, an important event in the development of the program occurred when the Quakers were awarded the rights to host the 2007 NCAA semifinals and championship. As a result, before the 2007 season even started, Penn's players were focused on Memorial Day weekend. "From day one of the 2007 season, the team believed they would be playing on Franklin Field in the final four," she said.

Despite that Penn had not been to an NCAA tournament since 1984 and never played in a final four, Penn earned an invitation to the 2007 NCAA tournament and indeed reached the semifinals at Franklin Field. No one expected the Quakers to be there, Corbett said, but a lot of hard work and confidence led them to a semifinal matchup against Northwestern, the eventual national champion. Though not victorious, the 2007 experience proved to be invaluable, as Penn reached the title game in 2008 and semifinals in 2009.

Despite their success, lacrosse "experts" routinely leave the Quakers out of the national title conversation year in and year out. Admittedly, I was not sure how Penn would fare in 2011. Graduation was not kind to the Quakers, as they lost over 50 percent of last year's scoring, including Tewaaraton finalist and All-American midfielder Ali DeLuca, All-American midfielder Emma Spiro and goalie Emily Szelest.

That said, Corbett always seems to find ways to make her teams deliver and produce. One of the reasons Penn has been so successful is its defense. The Quakers stifle opposing defenses through team-oriented defensive concepts. On the offensive side, Penn's attack is not known for putting up gaudy numbers, but in concert with their defense, the Quakers manage to get the job done.

When it gets down to it, Penn doesn't have the flashiest players, but they work hard and, more importantly, they know how to win.

Penn's win over UNC seems to be a good indicator that it will again be in the hunt for a national championship. But I think we may see a different brand of Penn lacrosse. In recent years, the Quakers utilized a very efficient attack, relying on a motion offense to generate scoring opportunities. As a result, Penn was very patient on attack and took a lot of time off the clock in its offensive possessions.

However, Corbett believes player personnel drives the style of lacrosse that Penn plays.  "Last year we had no midfield subs, [so] we had no choice but to slow it down," she said.

Corbett has always wanted to have a more up-tempo attack, she said, and this year she feels the Quakers finally have the depth they need to push the tempo. Seven different players scored for Penn in the win over North Carolina.

Penn still has some work to do to win over more believers (or voters). I know it is still early in the season, but in the Feb. 28 IWLCA poll after Penn defeated Drexel, the Quakers actually dropped from No. 6 to No. 8. The win over UNC, however, added credibility and and vaulted them to No. 4 in this week's rankings.

It's perhaps foreboding of another final four run.

No stopping Northwestern

I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly mention the offensive explosion that occurred in the Northwestern-Georgetown game. In its season opener, Georgetown hung 15 goals on the Wildcats. The bad news for the Hoyas, though, was that Northwestern put up 24 goals on blistering, 75-percent shooting to improve to 5-0 (all on the road). This was Georgetown's first game of the season, and the Hoyas are breaking in two new goalkeepers, Lauren Thomas and Barb Black -- not the best circumstances for any team, as Northwestern arguably has the best attack unit in the nation. We will likely get a better sense of Georgetown's capabilities Wednesday when they play Florida.

On the other hand, I think everyone already knows that Northwestern is capable of taking it all in 2011.

Sheehan Stanwick Burch, a former four-time All-American player at Georgetown University who went on to play for the U.S. Elite team, is a college women's lacrosse analyst for CBS College Sports. Check back to each week throughout the season for columns and podcasts.

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