Amidst the buzz of students coming and going from class, of worries about grades and jobs, of the hectic life of Penn students, on this gorgeous day in late April, a group of four decided to dust off their old mitts.
On the grass, beneath the shadow of Rodin College House, a baseball flies through the air. It whips through the swirling highrise winds and lands in the glove of Fran Dougherty, one of Penn basketball’s captains for the 2013-14 season.
With good form, he throws it past fellow senior Cam Gunter and into classmate Steve Rennard’s hands. Rennard squeezes his glove tight around the ball before swinging it to freshman Preston Troutt. Gunter looks on, smiling.
Closer to Harnwell College House, sophomore forward Greg Louis is sneaking a picture. He has his phone out for too long though, as the rest of the players catch him.
“He always does that!” The exclamation, filled with a sense of camaraderie and history, flies through the air just as easily as the ball had just a few moments before.
Even off the court, months after the team’s last game of the season — the last of Dougherty, Gunter and Rennard’s entire careers — the players stick together.
Not in Kansas anymore
Going to college is a stressful experience, a whirlwind of uncertainty. From classes to clubs to what they’re wearing in the morning or what they’re doing that night, one thing all freshmen come to realize is that they aren’t in Kansas anymore.
And at Penn, where the bar has been set so high, it’s imperative for students to land on their feet after the dust settles from freshman year.
Athletes have an even larger burden on their shoulders when they step onto campus. Soccer players start playing games before classes begin. All fall athletes report back to campus a week earlier than everyone else to cram in as much information as possible — both on the field and off — before being thrown into the mess that is NSO.
Men’s soccer junior Duke Lacroix had to be driven to an away game at La Salle during NSO, as he had to skip the team bus due to a required college house event.
It is easy to make the argument that — especially in the wake of Penn track and field freshman Madison Holleran’s death in January — playing sports at an institution that is as rigorous academically and challenging socially would make life that much more difficult for athletes.
Rather, thanks to the communities that are formed amongst the players who don the Penn uniform week in and week out, it becomes that much easier for those athletes to transition from high school to college, and ultimately, the real world.
After all, as women’s lacrosse freshman Sarah Barcia said, “It’s definitely easy having 32 best friends within the first couple of days coming to school.”
All in this together
For men’s soccer coach Rudy Fuller, the process of building a team community starts long before school begins.
“It starts for us when someone comes on a visit,” he said. “We want to hear from our current players, to see if he’d be a good fit for our team, our locker room, our family.”
Once the coaching staff and the senior leadership on the team determine that the player is right for the program, Fuller makes sure that the player meets with the senior leadership to assure that any questions are answered. As a freshman, senior Jonny Dolezal went to a soccer camp and met five of the current players on the roster.
“I loved talking to them,” Dolezal said. “They provided great mentorship.
“One of the reasons I chose Penn is because I had met those guys and they were just such great guys.”
While Fuller’s system of making sure seniors bring along the freshmen generally works, that doesn’t always translate for others.
“This isn’t a perfect system,” he said.
Some players will fall through the cracks, and sometimes the development doesn’t translate to wins.
In November of 2012, Penn men’s soccer was down in the dumps. After beating Harvard to end what was a miserable 3-13 season, something had to change. So Fuller decided to get the team in better shape.
But the only way he could get the team to buy in was because of the community that Fuller developed with the team.
The next season, the results paid off on the field. After having his team train hard in spring ball, he also scheduled a tough nonconference schedule, again thanks to the fact that his team was prepared. The squad grew in its nonconference slate and dominated in Ivy play, leading to a pseudo-Ivy championship game between Penn and Harvard.
In the locker room before that game, Fuller had a few words about togetherness for the squad.
“Your lifetime is made up of moments,” he told his team. “The truly special moments are shared with people, and this is one of those special moments.”
Fuller’s squad was resilient beyond belief, but also showed the power that camaraderie can have on the field. More importantly, however, are the lasting effects of the ties his team creates.
“I’m still friends with the seniors, the guys that were seniors when I was a freshman,” Dolezal said. “It just shows how these are lifelong friendships because we’ve been through this together.”
The new realities
That togetherness pays dividends during the struggles that inevitably arise during one’s time at Penn.
Kristen Lange came to Penn as a squash star and was thrust into a big role for Jack Wyant and women’s squash.
“It took me about a semester to feel comfortable in my position on the team, socially and academically,” she said. “Being No. 1 on the team from the start was a huge challenge. A lot is expected of you both privately — getting in extra sessions on and off the court, constantly improving and being the most focused on the team — and publicly — always staying focused when the team is around and during matches staying composed in some really high stress situations, which I was always put in because I played last.”
Still, Lange felt support from the coaching staff that ultimately allowed her to succeed in all areas Penn had to offer.
“Academically, learning how to balance all the training and studying took a while,” Lange said. “But after a semester, making good friends with people in my classes and the aid of outside resources, it all fell in place and I felt comfortable and confident in my role.”
One of the risks of putting so much stake into one’s athletic career is running the risk of getting injured. Fifth-year senior running back Brandon Colavita had season-ending injuries in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, taking him off of the field, unable to help his teammates.
“Seeing those types of injuries is hard,” former Penn defensive lineman and current NFL linebacker Brandon Copeland said. “What you get with a football player is someone who is hardened and very used to dealing with adversity.”
But football isn’t the only team that has to deal with injuries that places players into new positions. Sophomore Keiera Ray was out for most of the year for women’s basketball, and the Red and Blue made the NCAA tournament. Dougherty, when he fell ill with a case of mononucleosis in his junior season, took to a role as a player-coach. Injuries are just par for the course when playing a sport, and the mentality that Copeland described comes back to being a part of the team.
“This is a new set of reality,” Copeland said. “How do we make this next play as good as possible?
“You can’t stress what you can’t control ... but I can move forward and have a sufficient role on this team and push people in the same way that I would have had I been on the field.”
That mentality also arises when tragedy strikes.
Coping with loss
Princeton is one of the traditional powerhouse programs in women’s squash, and Lange, as a freshman, travelled to face the Tigers as the No. 1 player for Penn.
Just before the match against Princeton, she found out that her grandfather had died.
“I wouldn’t have gotten by without my team being there for me when I went through some tough times,” Lange said. “When the girls found out they helped me get through that match.”
In the same way, Penn football came together following the death of Owen Thomas, who had just been named captain going into his senior year in 2010.
The team had just finished spring ball, and after being ushered into an auditorium in one of the engineering buildings, coach Al Bagnoli announced the news.
“It felt so surreal,” Copeland said. “You were almost waiting for him to come out and say that it was all a bad joke.”
But following the tragedy, the football community came together. Copeland remembered spending a lot of time afterward at the seniors’ houses, sitting around campfires, telling stories about Thomas and about life.
The next season, Penn cruised to an Ivy title, as the seniors willed the team to victory.
“We spent time getting to know the person next to us, not just as a football player but as a person” Copeland said. “And you saw it on the field.”
From the time an athlete starts at Penn, he or she undergoes a transformation — sometimes organic, sometimes more forced — from follower to leader.
As much as coaches themselves try to build locker room culture, the task of doing so ultimately falls on those that have been in the system, with the team, for four years.
“There has to be a foundation of a relationship at the very core,” Fuller said.
Fuller puts it on their shoulders to lead. He and his staff would meet with the seniors for weekly meetings. At times, these meetings would be just shooting the breeze, while others would handle issues that either side was seeing on or off the field. Fuller wanted to give the seniors the tools to handle situations on their own.
On the backs of its seniors, Penn men’s soccer took home the Ivy title last year. More often than not in Ivy play, there will be strong seniors behind a team’s success on the field.
“You’re only going to be as good as your seniors,” Copeland said.
But more important than winning is learning the skills to succeed. Copeland has worked his way into the NFL, and even though the journey has been hard, the tools he learned at Penn have helped him get to that point.
“My time at Penn, the biggest thing I’ve taken from it is how to deal with stress,” he said. “You can let it eat you up, or you can realize you’re blessed to be in a situation to have that type of stress.”
What I’ve been looking for
There is still a buzz around campus as the shadow that is cast from Rodin’s 24 floors has shifted over the course of an hour. Students are still worried about final projects, about jobs and about that BYO on Thursday that they may or may not be able to attend.
The mitts that had graced the hands of Penn basketball’s members just 60 minutes before have been dropped to the grass, picking up dirt as the highrise winds continue to blow, seemingly never-ending.
The sound of ball hitting glove has been replaced by simple chat, as the four members of the squad stand in a circle. Senior Miles Jackson-Cartwright has joined his teammates.
There is a history between these players that even the highrise winds cannot displace, even for a moment, that even the seniors’ rapidly approaching graduation cannot augment.
Winds and grades, shadows and final projects, those come and go. But the time spent together — at the Palestra, in the film room and on the grass during a sunny day in late April — will continue to last.