For each of Penn baseball coach John Yurkow’s first two seasons, the narrative has been eerily similar; a school record in regular season Ivy League wins, a school record in players earning All-Ivy recognition and a one-game playoff loss to eventual champion Columbia to eliminate the Quakers from conference championship contention.
Consequently, with six of the team’s ten 2015 All-Ivy players having left University City, it’d be reasonable to expect Penn — which hadn’t finished above .500 in conference play since 2007 until Yurkow took over — to return to the levels of mediocrity the program experienced prior to his promotion to the head position.
But Yurkow and his Quakers don’t rebuild; they reload.
With a recruiting class of a staggering 11 freshmen making their Meiklejohn Stadium debuts, the Red and Blue have no plans for any drop-off, hoping that an influx of fresh talent can quickly integrate with the squad’s returning stars to carry Penn to its first conference championship since 1995.
“Once Ivy league play hits, we’re going in to try to win every game,” said freshman pitcher Jake Nelson, who hasn’t given up a run yet in his brief collegiate career. “Columbia has kind of been our ‘rival’ for the last two years, and we’re going in with that in mind.”
Fortunately for Yurkow’s squad, Penn’s freshman class quantity has been matched by its quality. According to Perfect Game, the group is ranked as the 84th best freshman class in NCAA Division I baseball — Penn is the only Ivy League school to crack the Top 100.
Furthermore, these rankings don’t even account for a pair of transfers who have joined the star-studded rookie class. Sophomore outfielder Daniel Halevy has arrived from Houston and made an impact off the bench, hitting 3-for-10 thus far in 2016.
On the other side of the ball, junior pitcher Adam Bleday Jr. — who played at national finalist Virginia in 2014 before spending his sophomore year at Gulf Coast College — has seized a role in the rotation, leading the team with 11.1 innings pitched and ranking eighth in the Ivy League with 10 strikeouts.
“A lot of it just had to do with replacing ten seniors,” Yurkow said. “We had a couple of kids that got in on their own and then had a couple of transfers, so it’s a pretty huge class, since we knew we had to replace a lot of bodies.”
Still, while both transfers have made contributions, the impact of the freshman class has been unparalleled. Already, first baseman Sean Phelan — named the preseason Ivy League Rookie of the Year by Perfect Game and D1Baseball.com — catcher Matt O’Neill, second baseman Matt Tola and third baseman Matt McGeagh have earned starting roles, resulting in a Red and Blue personnel vastly different than the ones that advanced to two consecutive Lou Gehrig Division championship games.
“I’ve tried to be a little more patient here, and we’ve tried to do our teaching a little slower, even in the fall,” Yurkow said. “It’s a lot easier when you have position players that have done it for three years because they know the system, so we’re really trying to take it down a notch and build a strong foundation, so we’ve had to focus on on that a little more than in years past.”
And, although the season is hardly underway, it’s fair to say that the coaching staff’s lessons have paid off so far.
Tola has dominated at the plate, ranking in the conference’s top five in batting average (.429), on-base percentage (.467), slugging percentage (.571) and OPS (1.038), while leading the Ancient Eight with 12 hits. O’Neill also is in the Ivy League’s top ten in batting average (.333) and OBP (.452), while maintaining a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage to match.
On the mound, Nelson is tied for the league lead with six scoreless innings — including three innings in a 3-2 nailbiter over North Florida.
“I think maybe the first couple of games out, some of those freshmen were a little nervous or jittery, but as the week wore on they settled in a little bit more,” Yurkow said. “They seemed to play as if they belonged on the field.”
While Penn’s 2-6 record from its trip to Florida might seem like a cause for unrest, the team’s vast youth combined with its recent history should give Yurkow and his staff a bit of relief. In 2014 and 2015, the Quakers’ records were 0-6 and 1-7, respectively, at the end of those years’ spring breaks, and Penn went on to post a combined 31-9 regular season conference record in those two campaigns.
“I don’t see it [as us having to take a step back] — I made a joke to some of the older guys like ‘Well, I guess it’s time to flip the switch,’ because that’s what we’ve done these last two years,” Yurkow said. “Now, we did that with older teams, so we’ll have to see if our younger guys can follow suit, but I’m okay with where we’re at right now. I’m not the type of person who’s going to hit the panic button just because we struggled early. ... I like our talent level, so it’ll be interesting to see where things to over these next few weeks heading into league play.”
As for once league play begins, the objective for the Red and Blue is quite clear.
“The goal is to beat Columbia,” Nelson said. “We don’t want to need that one-game playoff again.”
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