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Men Basketball against Columbia at Palestra, win in double overtime 61-59 panhel at the palestra Credit: Alexandra Fleischman , Alexandra Fleischman

It was a mere coincidence that Steve Rennard appeared on the cover of the Palestra Illustrated program Friday — the same night the sophomore guard recorded his first collegiate start.

That he made the cover — a photo of him nailing a crucial three-pointer in front of the Penn bench in a win over Princeton — or that he even got the start was no fluke. His hard work finally paid off.

After playing just 47 total minutes his freshman year and sitting out with a torn ligament in his thumb through the first nine games this season, Rennard has emerged as coach Jerome Allen’s go-to spark off the bench, playing dogged defense a la Rob Belcore, with the deadly shot of Zack Rosen.

It should come as no surprise that Rosen has been a key figure in the story of Rennard’s development. When Rosen was given the keys to the Green Street Gym in Woodbridge, N.J. — “a run-down piece-of-crap gym,” as he puts it — he worked out there day in and day out in high school, developing the tools that would later make him a star at Penn.

By the time Rosen transferred to basketball powerhouse St. Benedict’s, a 12-year-old by the name of Steve Rennard from nearby Hazlet, N.J., started hanging around Green Street.

“Steve used to be the little guy running around the gym when we’d be working out,” Rosen recalled. And by the time he was headed to Penn, Rennard “started to build a name for himself at St. Joe’s,” Rosen said.

As a four-year starter and three-year captain at St. Joseph High School (much like Rosen at Penn), Rennard amassed 1,471 points, leading his team to a 87-26 record during his career. The Newark Star Ledger named him player of the year his senior season.

“From our area, if you play basketball, you’re tough and you work hard. It’s just the lay of the land because you won’t survive,” Rosen said. “Steve is obviously that.”

A point guard in high school, Rennard came to Penn knowing that his position would be locked up by Rosen for the next two years.

“I didn’t really have a problem with it,” he said. “Zack obviously is going to run the show. It’s great to be able to play with Zack, just how he makes plays, finds people open.”

As most freshmen do, Rennard struggled a year ago, playing limited and mostly meaningless minutes.

“Everybody on a college Division I team was ‘the man’ in high school, so I had to get used to the role that I had to play,” he said. “You just gotta put in the work.”

Rennard has made the transition to shooting guard and is averaging 22 minutes per game in Ivy competitions this year. He dropped 10 points in the win over Princeton and scored a career-high 13 in 37 minutes Saturday, starting in place of the injured Tyler Bernardini. He is shooting 43 percent from distance.

Rennard may be averaging just below four points per game, but the plays — both offensive and defensive — seem to come at the most opportune times.

Against Princeton, he hit two three-pointers in the final nine minutes. Against Cornell, Rennard took a huge charge on a Big Red fast break, forcing a turnover as the Quakers were mounting their comeback. The next night against Columbia, he hit successive treys in the final four minutes — each to retake the lead for Penn. He finished 5-for-6 shooting that night.

“Steve’s a cool customer,” says assistant coach Dan Leibovitz.

Rennard says there are no nerves for him at this point in his basketball career. His confidence comes from knowing how much work he’s put in.

“I tell all these guys that they’re one play away from being a starter,” coach Jerome Allen said after Rennard’s performance against the Lions. “In this case, he came into maturation.”

With Bernardini’s status unclear as Penn enters a crucial road swing through Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend, Rennard may well find himself in the starting lineup again. And he’s making a strong play to hold onto a spot come next season.

Rennard says he’d like to move back to the point, where he’s most comfortable. But with touted high-school prospect Jamal Lewis joining the team next season, he may have some competition. Rosen didn’t want to think about, let alone venture a guess, as to who would replace him.

Before practice this week, Rosen looked out at Rennard and teammate Miles Cartwright on the floor, the first two to arrive, as they shot countless three-pointers.

“All I know is these guys right here are going to work hard over the summer. They’re going to get good. They’re going to put themselves in a position to be leaders next year.”

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