The state of Penn Athletics is strong — and it’s getting stronger every day.
Three teams have won Ivy titles already this year, and there’s a good chance more are on the way.
Baseball may need a little help, but with four games to play this weekend, they’re only a game back of Princeton for the Gehrig Division title and the squad’s first trip to the Ivy League Championship Series since 2007.
Both lacrosse squads are well-positioned going down the stretch as well, with the women’s side needing just a win over Cornell on Saturday to lock up its ninth Ivy title in the last 10 years — just as attack Alex Condon and midfielder Nina Corcoran are playing better than almost anyone else in the nation.
And men’s lacrosse is done with the regular season, but they’ve locked up the No. 3 slot in the Ivy Tournament and just might make a run at the title just as they did two years ago.
A title from any of those three would mark the most Ancient Eight trophies since 2010-11. A title from two, and you have to go all the way back to 2006-07.
The Red and Blue are more competitive on the field as a whole than at any time since I’ve been here.
And here’s what’s scary: They’re only getting better.
When I think about the potential for football to repeat as champs next year, my thought isn’t ‘Can they do it?’ but ‘Who can stop them?’
Ditto for women’s basketball.
On the gridiron, Ray Priore’s squad’s biggest loss will be Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Tyler Drake. Sure, he’s going to be hard to replace. But the loss occurs at linebacker, arguably the Quakers’ position with the most depth.
Coach Mike McLaughlin’s women’s basketball squad isn’t losing a single starter — including three-time Ivy Defensive Player of the Year and reigning Player of the Year Sydney Stipanovich — and rumor has it that some of the incoming freshmen for the Red and Blue have the potential to break into the starting rotation almost from the get-go.
The third Ivy champion we’ve seen this year, men’s fencing, didn’t just take home an Ancient Eight title this year — they were ranked No. 1 in the nation. Add in women’s squash finishing just short of a national championship, and Penn is competing on the national level in a way we’ve rarely seen in recent years.
On the whole, the storylines around many of Penn Athletics’ programs this year have been inspired by the youth. This is supposed to be a transitional period for the Red and Blue — but the Quakers are in positions to compete right now.
Add that to the lack of a single coach departing University City so far this year, and you’ve got the foundation for a new period of stability for the Red and Blue.
To match the on-field revolution we’ve seen, Athletic Director Grace Calhoun has unveiled a rebranding campaign that’s been over a year in the works. Penn Athletics has a slightly new look, and by the looks of it, it will pay dividends down the road. Calhoun and her department have truly taken a newly inspired approach to an age-old issue.
To be sure, there is yet a lot of work to be done.
Calhoun has made student engagement one of the hallmarks of her tenure thus far. She knows it’s going to be a long haul trying to reform an entire campus culture, but there’s still great strides that need to be made.
6,007 students came out to watch as Penn football clinched the Ivy title over Cornell. Average attendance at home games fell from 8,720 in 2014 — when then team went 3-7 and won just two games — to 6,048 this past year. Some of that can be attributed to the Fordham game, which attracted just over 2,000 fans during fall break. Nonetheless, the on-the-field improvement should not be met with that kind of decline in the stands.
That said, men’s basketball attendance rose by 500 per game to just over 3,200, and the potential atmosphere to bring students to the Palestra is only going to improve with the inaugural Ivy basketball tournaments coming to University City next year.
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Absolutely, they’ll do wonders for enthusiasm. I have reservations about the tournament — and its potential to harm teams that go 13-1 in the regular season and get tripped up in tournament play (Penn women’s basketball come to mind).
Not only that, but Robin Harris, the league’s executive director, noted when the tournament was announced that it would occur during most schools’ spring breaks. This includes the host school. There isn’t much the conference can do about that considering how the season is scheduled, but one of the most potentially exciting athletics events the Palestra will host next year will occur when a huge proportion of the student body isn’t even on campus.
Speaking of games over break, look no further than Penn-Princeton. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get back to a time where Ivy basketball’s greatest rivalry isn’t played over winter and spring breaks, but all four men’s and women’s Penn-Princeton games this year rank among the five best basketball games I’ve seen at Penn. The title-winner for the women over spring break, followed by an awesome effort from Steve Donahue’s men’s squad were absolutely electrifying.
But if no one is around to watch it, does it even matter?
In looking at the state of Penn Athletics, I’d be remiss in not calling out the fact that some of the most exciting events of the year occur when no one is on campus.
So as I sit back and think about what I’ve seen in my time as senior sports editor, I can’t help but be amazed that this is the same Penn Athletics I saw when I stepped on campus almost three years ago.
There’s work to be done, but make no doubt, the state of Penn Athletics is strong indeed. Speaking for myself, I can’t wait for next year.
Oh, and in case anyone forgot, we’ve got two national champions in University City.
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