Roundtable: Who has been Penn's best coach of 2015?

Women's basketball coach Mike McLaughlin has created a culture of winning.

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As Penn Athletics begins to wind down its spring season, several teams — including the baseball, softball and lacrosse squads — remain in contention for Ivy titles and postseason play. Others have played their final contests of the campaign or can see the end of their seasons on the horizon. With a few marquee events still to come, there will be plenty to discuss over the next several days. But as summer approaches, our sports editors debate: Who has had the best coaching performance so far this calendar year?

Senior Sports Editor Riley Steele: Because this discussion includes the entirety of 2015, I am tempted to refer back to the impressive job Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin did with his squad this season (even if he hasn’t managed to get on the squash court recently). However, it’s another Mike patrolling the sidelines for the Red and Blue that is most deserving of the Coach of the Year award, at least right now.

After the men’s lacrosse team won the program’s first Ivy title in 2014, coach Mike Murphy was tasked with finding a competent goalkeeper to replace the departed Brian Feeney, as well as retooling the squad’s defense. There certainly have been hiccups this year, especially considering that the Quakers have given up double digit goals in nine of their 12 games and dropped four crucial games in a row mid-season. But three consecutive wins have Penn in position to potentially make the Ivy League Tournament once again, a feat that seemed unimaginable less than a month ago.

Sports Editor Colin Henderson: Well, Riley, while I certainly respect what Murphy has done from the sideline, I think you should have stuck with your first intuition.

This year, McLaughlin had to overcome some lofty obstacles, having lost possibly the program’s most important player of the past decade — Alyssa Baron — and another key defensive stalwart — Meghan McCullough — to graduation. As a result, his young squad saw some struggles early in the season.

However, McLaughlin kept his cool and trusted the process, continuing to trust in up-and-comers like Michelle Nwokedi and Anna Ross. The end result was not a repeat Ivy championship, but it was still impressive: a second place Ancient Eight finish behind only Princeton, which spent most of the season undefeated. While several Penn coaches have enjoyed winning seasons this year, there are very few that can be said to have done a better job of creating a winning culture.

Associate Sports Editor Tom Nowlan: Baseball’s John Yurkow. Last year, Yurkow’s first season as Quaker head coach ended in crushing fashion, as the Quakers dropped a one-game playoff to Columbia to decide the Lou Gehrig division. Yurkow admitted before the season that the loss had bugged him all offseason, and he has motivated his squad to come back much stronger this year.

The Quakers have rolled to a 14-2 Ivy record so far this season — once again, tied with the Lions — and have dominated in all facets of the game, from the pitching of Connor Cuff to the offensive dominance of Austin Bossart and Mitch Montaldo. Yurkow has been unafraid to reward his team’s hot hands — preseason afterthought Connor Betbeze has moved into and excelled in the leadoff spot — while still sticking with veterans who have gone through rough stretches, such as senior infielder Jeff McGarry.

As the Quakers head into this weekend’s winner-take-all four-game set with Columbia, Penn fans can’t help but feel confident with Yurkow’s steady presence at the helm of the team.



Penn lacrosse dominates Ivy weekly awards

When Penn men’s lacrosse walked away from a road victory in Providence, R.I. over No. 10 Brown, the whole Ivy League took notice.

The Quakers used a team effort to take down their highly-ranked rivals, but junior goalie Jimmy Sestilio and freshman midfield Kevin McGeary caught the eyes of the media with their stellar individual performances.

Sestilio and McGeary were named Ivy League Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week respectively, the first time either has received a weekly award in their careers at Penn.

The men’s squad wasn’t the only one to take home Ivy weekly honors. Senior defender Meg Markham of Penn women’s lacrosse took home Defensive Player of the Week honors in the Ancient Eight.

While Saturday’s game started slow for Sestilio in net, he was a brick wall for the entirety of the second half. His 17 saves were a career high and were crucial in holding off a Brown attack that was averaging over 16 goals per game heading into last weekend’s contest.

A big part of Sestilio‘s success came from a team-wide defensive effort to shut down defending Ivy Player of the Week Larken Kemp. The Brown long stick midfield is considered one of the nation’s best at his position, but was limited to zero shots throughout the course of the match.

On the offensive end, McGeary added two goals on eight shots. His second goal was especially key, cutting the Brown lead to one with 32 seconds remaining in the first half. The rookie’s strong play in the opening period kept Penn in the game and put it in position to mount its successful comeback.

Markham’s consistent play led an impressive defensive unit that had opponents in a stranglehold all week, as the Quakers limited Columbia and Northwestern to a combined 10 goals.

Against the Lions, the defense allowed only one goal for an Ivy League-leading second time this season.

While the Red and Blue eventually came up short against the No. 6 Wildcats in Evanston, Ill. on Saturday, the defense held true. The Quakers limited Northwestern to less than 10 goals for only the fourth time all year.

Selena Lasota — Northwestern’s leading scorer with 40 goals entering the game — struggled against Markham, only tallying one goal under the senior’s watch and just two on the game.

Markham — who won her second Defensive Player of the Week award of the season and fifth of her career — added to what is now a long tally of impressive games for the Quakers. She is averaging 3.0 caused turnovers per game this year, good enough for first and second in the league and nation respectively in the statistic.

Additionally, Markham has now taken home the Red and Blue’s fourth Defensive Player of the Week award of their 2015 campaign. In addition to her two, sophomore defender Megan Kelly and senior goalkeeper Lucy Ferguson each have an award to their name.

Next up for the men’s team is a date with Harvard on Saturday as the squad tries to keep its Ivy postseason hopes alive. The women’s team also plays the Crimson on Saturday.



Roundtable: Who has been Penn's best spring athlete?

Tory Bensen has led Penn women's lacrosse throughout the spring.

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Midway through Penn Athletics’ spring season, an intriguing combination of players have left an indelible mark on their respective teams’ successes in 2015. In recent weeks, Penn baseball has surged ahead, winning seven of eight Ivy games in dominating fashion, yet with no single person responsible for the hot streak. The women’s lacrosse and softball teams are humming along as well, with their usual cast of stars setting the tone for the Quakers.

As these teams and others prepare for a stretch run to the postseason, our editors answer one simple question: Which spring athlete has been the most impressive for the Red and Blue?

Sports Editor Colin Henderson: I have to go with Tory Bensen, Penn women’s lacrosse’s star senior attack.

Bensen’s numbers alone are probably impressive enough to give her the title. She has 37 goals on the season, more than twice as many as everyone on the team except fellow attack Iris Williamson. She is on pace to break her personal record of 41 goals in a season, which was good for tops on the team last year.

Aside from the sheer volume of goals she has scored, her efficiency has also been off the charts. She has put over 85 percent of her shots on goal and ultimately scored on over 53 percent of them.

But the numbers only paint part of the picture for Bensen. The Red and Blue have won eight consecutive Ivy championships, but they have always been known primarily for their stifling defense. Meanwhile, their offense has been seen as preventing the team from breaking through nationally — especially in recent years.

This year, the Quakers are changing that perception, featuring a dynamic, balanced and consistent attack, and Bensen is leading the way.

And on top of all this, she’s simply the best player on Penn’s most dominant athletic program. That needs to count for something.

Associate Sports Editor Tom Nowlan: Connor Cuff. The senior righty has been the ace of Penn baseball’s staff all season, helping the Quakers burst out of the conference gate with a 7-1 Ivy record.

Cuff’s statistics speak for themselves. His 1.78 earned run average is tops on the team and third-best in the Ivy League, while his three wins (and two complete games) tie him with fellow senior Ronnie Glenn for the most on the squad. Cuff has given up more than one earned run in a start only once, and that was in a March 29 complete-game victory over Red Rolfe Division-leading Dartmouth.

Coming into the season, Penn’s offense was a known entity — senior catcher Austin Bossart and senior infielder Jeff McGarry were expected to tear the cover off the ball, which they have. Combined with Mitch Montaldo’s Ivy-leading six home runs and Connor Betbeze's .356 batting average, the Red and Blue sport the most powerful offense in the Ancient Eight. However, the dominance of Glenn and Cuff — and Cuff in particular — has validated Penn’s preseason hype as the Ivy League favorite.

As the conventional wisdom goes, postseason success comes down to pitching and defense. With Cuff at the top of the rotation, the Quakers can be confident putting its late-season fortunes in his right hand.

Sports Editor Holden McGinnis: Another year, another star freshman for Penn softball. Last year, outfielder Leah Allen took the Ivy League by storm, earning unanimous first team All-Ivy and Rookie of the Year honors. Allen set single-season records for home runs (13) and RBI (43), while batting .383.

This year, it’s freshman catcher Jurie Joyner. The McDonough, Ga., native leads the team with a .439 batting average and ranks second on the team with 21 RBI. While the team hasn’t had the greatest season so far — currently sitting in second place in the South Division with a 4-4 conference record — Joyner has been a noteworthy bright spot.

The Quakers are currently second in the Ivies in runs scored per game with 4.77, due in large part to the continued growth of an offense that only lost two key contributors from last year’s starting lineup. While a tough early season schedule and inconsistent play in conference outings has limited the team to a .500 record, the team’s young trend sets them up for a strong future.



Turn back the clock: Penn basketball's last NCAA tournament

Penn men's basketball last made the NCAA Tournament in 2007.

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Nowadays, it seems like the closest Penn students come to “March Madness” (besides spring break, of course) is filling out brackets or watching the Big Dance on TV.

But it wasn’t long ago that Penn consistently had the opportunity to experience the real thing on a consistent basis. In fact, in the early to mid 2000s, Penn men’s basketball was a bona fide Ivy League powerhouse, regularly finishing atop the Ancient Eight.

Given the recent struggles of the program — the team finished dead last in the Ivies this year — it may be hard to envision the team dominating the league, but Penn’s storied basketball history is actually not that far in the past. So let’s use the Final Four festivities coming up this weekend as an excuse to turn back the clock to 2007, the last time the Quakers made it to the NCAA Tournament.

Heading into the 2006-07 season, besting the Ivy League had become commonplace for the Red and Blue — they were two time defending champions and had won the league in four of the previous five years.

But something drastic had changed for the program. Legendary coach Fran Dunphy had left after the 2005-06 season to take the Temple head coaching job, leaving the program in the hands of veteran coach Glenn Miller.

The Quakers overcame the coaching turnover — led by seniors Ibrahim Jaaber, Mark Zoller and Steven Danley — and were able to accrue a 13-1 Ivy record and win the Ivies by a three-game margin, earning them an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament. They were given a 14-seed and sent to the South region of the bracket, matched up against three-seed Texas A&M.

Despite their relative ease getting through the Ivy regular season, the Quakers experienced adversity from the get-go.

In front of a pro-Penn (and anti-A&M) Rupp Arena crowd, the Quakers were unable to score until more than five minutes into the game — with Danley hampered by a back injury, the Quakers struggled to get going offensively.

“When you play against such a good team … you have to knock down a reasonable amount of shot,” Miller said. “We dug ourselves a hole.”

Meanwhile, the Aggies — led by All-American and future first-round NBA draft pick Acie Law — would take control of the game.

The Quakers fought back. With Danley essentially a non-factor, Jaaber and Zoller carried the load offensively for Penn. Within the first nine minutes of the second half, the Quakers went on a 19-3 run to take their first lead of the game, 39-37, much to the approval of the crowd.

“They did a great job of converting those plays, and we did a bad job of finishing them,” Law said of the Quakers’ run.

However, it would ultimately turn out to also be Penn’s last lead of the game.

With just under 12 minutes remaining, A&M forward Joseph Jones tip-slammed a Law miss to tie the game. On the very next possession, the same thing happened: Law missed and Jones slammed it home.

The Aggies would not relinquish the lead, overwhelming the Quakers for the rest of the game and taking home a 68-52 victory.

“Getting taken out of the game, just knowing that there’s not a tomorrow, it kind of hit me there a little bit,” Jaaber said of his last collegiate game.

The Aggies would go on to lose in the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, the Red and Blue are still searching for their first Tourney win since 1994, a search that has no clear end in sight.



Penn baseball's Ronnie Glenn, softball's Jurie Joyner earn Ivy honors

The Quakers earned a couple of pieces of hardware on the diamond last week.

Penn baseball ace Ronnie Glenn was named Ivy League Pitcher of the Week after leading the Red and Blue to a pair of victories in as many starts. The senior southpaw allowed two runs in five innings against St Joseph's and just one run in nine innings en route to a complete-game, extra-inning win over Harvard (the teams were scheduled for seven innings). Glenn also racked up 13 strikeouts, helping him bring in his first Ivy League weekly award.

Penn softball joined in on the award-winning fun, with catcher Jurie Joyner slugging her way to Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors. Joyner hit .643 in five games, bringing her season average up to .422, good for fourth in the league. The freshman also drove in nine runs, giving her the league's sixth-highest total (11). Of Joyner's nine hits on the week, seven went for extra bases, and one of them cleared the wall for her first collegiate home run. The Georgia native shared the award with Brown pitcher Katie Orona.

In addition to the two awards, both teams landed a player on the weekly honor roll. Baseball senior Connor Betbeze hit .571 to earn a spot, and softball junior captain Lauren Li joined him after hitting .743.

Glenn will likely make his next start this weekend against Yale or Brown. Joyner will look to continue her hot streak when Penn and Lafayette play two on Wednesday.

Both teams started their Ivy campaigns with three wins in four games, thanks in no small part to the award-winning efforts of Glenn and Joyner. Baseball enters the week at 7-9 overall, while softball stands at 11-9.



Former-Penn basketball recruit Jule Brown decommits

It’s always painful to go through a breakup.

Penn men's basketball recruit and Lower Merion High School senior Jule Brown announced Monday that he has decommitted from the Quakers and will not be a part of the program next season.

Brown made the announcement via Twitter Monday afternoon.

“After careful deliberation with my family and coach, I have decided to look for better options,” Brown said in the statement on social media. “I look forward to going through the recruiting process again. Again, a huge thank you to the University of Pennsylvania.”

It is unclear if Brown’s decision is a result of former coach Jerome Allen’s firing.

“I thought I had a great connection with [Allen], along with the other coaches. But I’m shocked. That’s all I can say,” Brown said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian immediately following the news of Allen’s firing on March 7.

However, at the time, Brown made it sound as if he had no plans to leave the program.

“Penn’s a great school, great basketball team,” Brown said. “I’d be foolish not to stick with them.”

However, it is clear that Brown’s sentiments have changed over the past three weeks. After having received offers from Columbia, Lafayette and Hartford in his initial recruitment last year, Brown will reopen his recruitment.

Despite Brown’s decommitment, Penn will still have a very solid class arriving on campus next fall. Cherry Hill, N.J. native and guard Jake Silpe will headline the Quakers’ class of 2019, which will also include center Collin McManus and sharpshooter Jackson Donahue, both of whom attend Northfield Mount Hermon (Mass.).

“The generosity and camaraderie I have experienced over the last year has been a blessing,” Brown wrote in the letter. “[The Quakers] are a special group of players and there is no doubt in my mind they will be making noise in the Ivy League in the upcoming year and beyond.” 



President Obama cheers Princeton women's basketball to NCAA win

Ivy League champion Princeton played its first game of the NCAA Tournament yesterday and the Tigers had a pretty big fan in their corner.

President Barack Obama was in the stands in College Park, Md., cheering for the Tigers, who feature his niece, freshman forward Leslie Robinson. Michelle Obama, a Princeton grad, was in Japan and was unable to attend the game.

Princeton, which was surprisingly put as an eight seed despite a 30-0 record going into the Tournament, picked up an 80-70 victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay, moving to 31-0. The Tigers will face the host in the region, Maryland, on Monday in a battle to make the Sweet 16. 

The win was the first in Princeton women's basketball NCAA Tournament history and just the second ever by an Ivy team. Penn led Texas at the half last year in its NCAA matchup (also played at College Park) but could not come away with a win.



Liveblog: Penn women's basketball takes on Hofstra in the WNIT

Penn women's basketball hosts Hofstra in the first round of the WNIT. Follow along with our liveblog here.

Live Blog Penn women's basketball vs. Hofstra - NIT Round 1
 


Bagnoli announces Columbia football staff

For the first time in decades, the hiring of coach Al Bagnoli has fans and alumni of Columbia football excited about the program's future.

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Once the dust cleared and Al Bagnoli was Columbia football's head coach, the next question became: Who would be on his staff? Would he take anyone from Penn's current staff?

Well, Bagnoli did raid Ray Priore's staff for one particular coach: Wide receivers coach Mark Fabish. Fabish will coach receivers and will be an associate head coach under Bagnoli at Columbia, leaving a spot to fill for Priore at Penn.

"Mark was the other coach I “recruited” from Penn," Bagnoli said in a release. "Mark served as our wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator as well as a member of my offensive staff, which produced three outright championships. He is a former great player at Penn and part of my first recruiting class. Mark will be a great fit as he is a North Jersey native who played at Bergen Catholic."

Other familiar faces: Jon McLaughlin was let go by Penn after the most recent season as offensive line and offensive coordinator and he will be Bagnoli's offensive line coach. Joseph D'Orazio, who was an All-Ivy offensive lineman for Penn as recently has four years ago, will coach tight ends for Columbia.

Here's the full staff in bullet point form:

  • Offensive coordinator and QB coach: Michael Faragalli
  • Offensive Line coach: Jon McLaughlin
  • Wide receivers coach: Mark Fabish
  • Tight ends coach: Joseph D'Orazio
  • Running backs coach: Todd Gilcrist
  • Defensive coordinator: Paul Ferraro
  • Defensive line coach: Darin Edwards
  • Linebackers coach and special teams coordinator: Justin Stovall
  • Secondary coach and recruiting coordinator: Jon Poppe 


3-on-3: Comparing the two Penn hoops squads

Freshman guard Antonio Woods should figure to be a crucial part of Penn men's basketball's future plans.

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Even though their regular seasons have wound down, both Penn men’s and women’s basketball have been in the news of late. As Steve Donahue prepares to take over the men’s team while Mike McLaughlin’s unit enters postseason play once again, our 3-on-3 writers compare the two squads.

1. Who was better in 2014-15: Antonio Woods for the men’s team or Michelle Nwokedi for the women’s side?

Associate Sports Editor Tom Nowlan: Nwokedi. Yes, Woods was certainly a bright spot for the men’s squad, but what Nwokedi was able to do this season was simply stunning. Despite playing relatively few minutes early in the year, the Texas native got better as the season progressed, winning six Ivy League Rookie of the Week nods and establishing herself as a starter. Despite averaging only 18.2 minutes per contest, Nwokedi was able to finish second on the team with 7.1 rebounds per game and scored the Quakers’ third-most points per game with 8.9.

Associate Sports Editor Tommy Rothman: Nwokedi, easily. She averaged nine points per game (slightly more than Woods) in 19 minutes per game (far fewer than Woods). Nwokedi was also a force on the boards, notching seven rebounds per game  also finishing second in the league with 2.3 blocks per contest. It's tough to compare a guard to a forward, but Woods didn't do enough "guard stuff" (passing, steals, hitting threes) to beat out Nwokedi. Penn Rookie of the Year isn't a thing, so Nwokedi will have to be content with the Ivy Rookie of the Year she was awarded last week.

Associate Sports Editor Thomas Munson: I'm leaning towards Nwokedi on this one.  We were spoiled by Stipanovich double-doubles late last season, but Nwokedi was Penn’s leading rebounder over the final four games. Her 6-foot-3 frame made her nearly unstoppable in a relatively vertically challenged Ivy League; yet she can make plays with the ball in space and drain shots like a guard. Woods impressed, but Nwokedi was a driving force behind a winning team and was often a difference maker.

2. Which team’s backcourt is in better shape moving forward?

Nowlan: The men. And it’s all because of one guy: Antonio Woods. Sure, freshman Anna Ross was a valuable cog in the Quakers’ offense this season, but no guard on the women’s squad has the sheer transcendent talent of Woods. He can score in bunches while still effectively operating the point, something that will be really fun to watch for the next three years. Things will get even better for Woods when Tony Hicks graduates and his touches increase even more.

Rothman: The men's team. Anna Ross had a strong season and Beth Brzozowski had some good games, but with Kathleen Roche and Renee Busch both and Keiera Ray a question mark due to injury, I have to give the men their tenth win of the season here. Antonio Woods and Tony Hicks form a dynamic duo in the backcourt, and they'll be joined by incoming freshmen Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue (no relation to Steve). Matt Howard provides depth, and Jamal Lewis could be a factor, although he, like Ray, must get back on the court first.

Munson: While it's hard not to choose a backcourt led by the dynamic Anna Ross, I definitely have to take the men on this one. Antonio Woods and Matt Howard both have superstar potential for the Red and Blue. What stood out to me most about this season as a whole was Woods' progression. By the final game against Princeton the offense ran through him and he looked more than comfortable taking the reins and running the point. Sure, Hicks will be back next season but I think the last few games proved that there's been a changing of the guard as the team’s core gets younger and deeper. Finding minutes for Hicks, Howard, Woods and Darnell Foreman will be a tough task for Donahue next year.

3. Penn women’s basketball will play in its third consecutive postseason beginning on Thursday. What are the chances that both basketball squads receive postseason bids in 2015-16?

Nowlan: 15 percent. Yes, the women are a lock to finish in one of the Ivy League's top two spots next year and earn a postseason berth, but the men's team has a long way to go to get back to the top of the Ancient Eight. Sure, sophomores-to-be Woods and Mike Auger — along with returning veterans Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry — will bring plenty of talent to the table, but a worst-to-first jump, especially with a new head coach factored in, isn’t that easy.

Rothman: So, how likely is it that the men's team is decent? Why didn't you just ask? Anyway, I'd say 35 percent. The Red and Blue had their moments this past season, especially down the stretch. Steve Donahue is an impressive new hire, the recruiting class is solid, and Penn isn't losing all that much to graduation. But overall, the men's team was very bad this year, so even if they improve, they could still be pretty bad. They won't be playing in the NCAA tournament and the NIT is almost certainly out of the question as well. Could they finish a hair over .500 and get into one of the lesser tournaments? Maybe.

Munson: I might sound crazy, but I'm gonna say 75 percent. The women may be losing a few key seniors but that shouldn't stop them winning their share of league games. For the men's team, I'm incautiously optimistic about the future. They have an excellent young core and an incoming recruiting class that looks strong (assuming it stays intact). Wesley Saunders is graduating from Harvard and there are some depth concerns for Tommy Amaker’s squad. The biggest question mark for Penn is whether any big men not named Mike Auger can play consistent basketball. You can't teach height but you also can't just be tall if you want to win games. Without Greg Louis the Quakers might get challenged a little more on the defensive end, but I have full faith in the Red and Blue’s ability to finish in the top three of the Ancient Eight.



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