Being great, but not the very best. It happens to a lot of people.
Scottie Pippen. Art Garfunkel. Pepsi.
And in recent years John Yurkow’s Penn baseball program has suffered the same fate — despite being one of the clear top two teams in the Ivy League, the Quakers have fallen in heartbreaking fashion to Columbia in one-game playoffs each of the last two seasons.
Coincidentally, those two seasons were Yurkow’s first two seasons as head coach. After John Cole was fired following a 2013 season that saw the Red and Blue finish last in their division with a 7-13 Ivy record, Yurkow led the team to a 15-5 mark in 2014 and then a program-best 16-4 showing a year ago.
Both of those seasons, though, were dominated by veteran star players that had been recruited under Cole — Austin Bossart and Jeff McGarry led the offense while Ronnie Glenn and Connor Cuff dominated on the mound.
So even though Yurkow was part of that staff — he was an assistant to Cole for seven seasons before being promoted — the team’s firepower came almost entirely from players that Yurkow didn’t have the final say in recruiting.
Now, though, Penn will be fueled by a bevy of fresh faces — the program has 13 newcomers this season, three of which have seen significant action over the team’s first eight games.
“We’re going to have to win with our young players this year,” Yurkow said. “I’ve tried to be a little more patient this year. We’ve tried to do our teaching a little slower.”
Nothing, of course, gets young players — especially hitters — adjusted to the college game quite like real, in-game action. Thus, Yurkow has been satisfied with the youngsters’ production this season despite the team’s quiet start to 2016.
“There’s just a lack of experience. They just haven’t seen it,” Yurkow said. “These are kids that are 18 years old, it’s their first time seeing Division I pitching. ... You just have to throw ‘em out there and let ‘em go, man.”
That is not to say that the team’s youngsters haven’t been productive in the early going — freshman second baseman Matt Tola has started all eight of the team’s contests and leads the team with a .429 average and a .571 slugging percentage. Meanwhile, Matt O’Neill has emerged as the squad’s primary catcher, a position that junior Tim Graul was originally supposed to occupy.
As Yurkow leads the program though its evolution, though, he acknowledges that he can’t simply rely on the new blood to fill the shoes of the graduated stars; the team must shift its fundamental approach in order to fit its new talents.
And at the forefront of that change will be the pitching staff.
“I truly think that by the end of this year, our pitching staff will be deeper and have better numbers than our staff last year,” Yurkow said, citing juniors Adam Bleday and Gabe Kleiman as possible breakout players. “The talent is there, you can see it.”
So, though this squad is unlikely to win the 16 conference games it did a year ago, there is certainly plenty of evidence that the team is reloaded for another season in contention.
And if the Quakers are to succeed in 2016, they will do so with a team that led by young, breakout stars willing to shift their approach to match their talents.
As for Yurkow, he has shown that he can win when fueled by the leadership of established veterans. Now, he will get to compete with a squad that is undeniably covered in his fingerprints.
In other words, if and when Yurkow eventually captures that elusive Ivy title, he will do it with a roster that is distinctly his.
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