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Catcher Matt O'Neill has burst onto the scene in his first year at Penn, leading Ivy League freshmen in homers, slugging percentage, runs, and runners caught stealing.

Credit: Nick Buchta

As Penn baseball coach John Yurkow was faced with the prospect of life without former co-Ivy League Player of the Year Austin Bossart following the 2015 season, he didn’t have to look all that far from home.

At one of his camps for high school players, Yurkow had come across a young catcher from Seton Hall Prep School in West Orange, N.J., named Matt O’Neill.

“A coach that I knew gave us his name — probably when he was a sophomore — and he came to a fall camp his junior year, and I thought he looked pretty good at fall camp,” Yurkow said. “He obviously played in a very good high school program, Seton Hall Prep is a very good program — Rick Porcello went to Seton Hall Prep. They’re always one of the top parochial schools in the state of New Jersey.”

But playing at one of the top prep schools in the state, O’Neill was stuck as the backup even heading into 2014. From there, things accelerated quickly. Taking over the starting job midway through the season, the then-junior catcher burst onto the scene, hitting .418 with 21 RBI in just 55 at-bats — and going 15-for-30 with three home runs down the stretch.

Less than a month after the season ended, Yurkow had his potential replacement. In the summer leading up to his — and Bossart’s — senior years, O’Neill decided he wanted to continue his playing career at Penn.

“It’s a unique combination of being able to play Division I baseball and obviously get an Ivy League education,” O’Neill said. “I was looking at a few other Ivy League schools — but I loved the coaches, the school’s awesome, the field’s awesome, it just felt like the right fit for me.”

O’Neill would set foot in University City as a student for the first time just over a year later. In the interim, Bossart finished out his senior campaign hitting .358 with 27 RBI, throwing out 17 of the 32 runners who tried to get a steal off of him and eventually being drafted in the 14th round of the MLB Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies.

As spring rolled around, it was time to see what life after Bossart would look like as O’Neill and junior Tim Graul were slated to split time behind the plate.

“It’s a much different obviously because the runners are faster, the pace of the game is much quicker so it took a little while to get adjusted to,” O’Neill noted. “But a couple games in I got the gist of it.”

Very quickly, the Morristown, N.J., native emerged as the team’s primary catcher. In one of the most stellar — and under the radar — freshman performances in the Ivy League, O’Neill has the most homers, runs and runners caught stealing among rookies to go along with the best slugging percentage. His batting average and RBI total are both second best — and among all Ancient Eight players, he is in the top 12 for each of those statistics.

Yet he holds not a single Ivy League Rookie of the Week award to his name.

Even if League officials haven’t been impressed with the rookie catcher’s work, his coaches have been.

“I think the pitchers enjoy throwing to him,” Yurkow said. “He’s a good leader back there. I always say that the catcher’s got to be the quarterback of your defense, and he’s just taken to it really well.”

With O’Neill taking the lion’s share of games at catcher, the Quakers have pitched their way to a league-best 3.68 ERA, and their 252 strikeouts as a staff trail Dartmouth by just two. Add that to a pair of Big 5 Pitchers of the Week, and O’Neill is doing just fine as he leads Penn into the Post-Bossart Era.

“You have a player like [Bossart], that gets drafted in the 14th round, I don’t know if you ever really replace a player like that, when his talent level is that high,” Yurkow reflected. “But I’ll tell you what, these two guys have done a great job, both Timmy and Matt.”

Heading into this past weekend’s games against Cornell, the Red and Blue stood three games back of Princeton in the Gehrig Division. With just eight games left, there seemed little hope of catching the Tigers — O’Neill had to catch himself when he said he wanted to walk away from University City with three Ivy rings to his name (“I want to walk away with three rings — hopefully four, I think we still have a shot to get one this year”).

But then the Quakers came back to life. As Princeton dropped three of four to Columbia, Penn had a chance to make its first Ivy title since 1995 a reality. After splitting a doubleheader on Saturday, however, Cornell took a one-run lead in the top of the 10th.

It was the Quakers’ pair of catchers that saved the season. After O’Neill doubled with the bases empty, it was Graul — serving as designated hitter — that brought him home to tie the game. The Red and Blue went on to win the game and the one that followed, putting the Quakers just a game back of Princeton heading into the final week.

Having lost one of the best players in program history, it seems unlikely that Yurkow’s squad should be in a position to do what Bossart never did: win an Ivy title.

And yet, thanks in part to a freshman catcher from New Jersey, they might do just that.

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