Sometimes, the sports writer’s job is made real easy.
No matter what happened on Sunday afternoon, the narrative was going to come naturally. Had Penn baseball lost, it would’ve been one of the most epic Penn Athletics choke jobs of the year — the Quakers losing four consecutive games to Columbia over nine days when a win in any one of them would’ve clinched the Ivy League Gehrig Division Title. With a win, it would be the sweetest revenge of all — Penn taking home its first division title in a full decade over the bitter rival it had fallen to in the identical one-game playoff setting in two of the past three years.
Fortunately, the Red and Blue chose the latter route, taking home one of the most monumental wins in program history. And, quite simply, the response we saw today is evidence that coach John Yurkow’s Quakers have finally taken that elusive next step.
It shouldn’t even have gotten to this point, some might say? Certainly a fair argument; after all, only eight days ago, Penn stood at 12-5 in conference play to Columbia’s 9-8, and the Quakers did lead in both of their last two regular season contests — both at home, nonetheless — before collapsing and forcing yet another tiebreaker.
But it did get here, and with everything on the line, the Penn program was forced to respond to adversity it hadn’t seen all year.
Entering today, there were countless possible reasons Columbia should’ve had a mental edge. In both 2014 and 2015 — Yurkow’s first two seasons running the helm at Penn — the Red and Blue set school records for conference wins before being eliminated by the Lions in the formerly dreaded one-game playoff. Hell, for good measure, Penn’s season was even ended by Columbia last year as well — though it was Princeton instead of the Lions that finished one spot ahead of the Red and Blue in the Gehrig Division, it was Columbia taking three of four against the Quakers in the season’s final weekend that eliminated them.
Then, of course, there were last week’s results, where Penn dropped three straight potential division-clinching games, only seven days in advance of having to face the same team again.
To steal a phrase from Penn men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue after his team’s Ivy League tournament loss, there’s a lot of human nature in sports. When one team just barely comes up short of doing something incredible and its opponent is suddenly given new life — like Columbia was after miraculously forcing Sunday’s playoff — it’s awfully difficult for that first team to respond, to somehow mentally convince itself that it hadn’t let its final chance at glory slip away.
The Lions had this new life, they had the recent history, and they had the home-field advantage. Facing such circumstances, even good programs could’ve emotionally crumbled from the opening pitch.
In each of Yurkow’s past three seasons, the Quakers were good — a 41-19 conference record and three straight second-place finishes certainly qualify as such. But while improving a program from mediocre to good is worthy of respect, taking that final leap from good to great is what separates the best coaches. And now, with such a monumental win under their belt, these Red and Blue are great.
From the onset on Sunday, it was clear that Penn had no fear for its old nemesis. Tim Graul and Matt O’Neill both ripped home runs in the first two innings. Jake Cousins shredded through the vaunted Columbia lineup only a week after the same group dropped 39 runs in four games against Penn. Overall, dominance on both sides of the ball was present, making one thing clear to all those in attendance — what happened in the past was squarely in the past, and this team only cared about the game in front of them.
Indeed, it was this buying in to the system that separated the 2017 Quakers from the ghosts of second-places past. Graul (to left field) and Matt Tola (to shortstop) graciously switched positions when approached by the coaching staff. A year after breakout season as a starter, junior pitcher Billy Lescher accepted a move to the bullpen to make room for Mitchell Holcomb — a freshman — to slide into the starters’ rotation.
And with a team so vastly determined to finally get over the hump, nothing was stopping the Quakers on Sunday: not the increasingly rowdy crowd at Robertson Field, not the heavy rain in the late innings as Adam Bleday attempted to hold Cousins’ lead, and certainly not the overhanging Lions’ logo providing a constant reminder of the team’s bitter shortcomings in recent years.
Of course, as satisfying as this win is, the work is far from done for Penn. To win its first Ivy title in 22 years, the Red and Blue still need to head to Yale — a team that went 16-4 in Ivy play, including a sweep of the Quakers — and snag another pair of wins.
But no matter what happens in New Haven, Sunday provided all the evidence we need. In Yurkow’s fourth season, Penn baseball is finally there as an elite program within the Ivy League — and there’s no feeling sweeter than that.
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