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Seniors like offensive lineman Dan Poulos helped lay the foundation for 2015's Ivy title run. Now, he and his classmates will seek just one more in their final season.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

One more.

That’s the phrase that was written across the shoulders on the Penn football team’s 2015 Ivy League Champion t-shirts last year. It’s also the phrase that’s on all of the team’s lifting apparel this year.

Last year, it was the mentality the team adopted after its third loss in four games to Fordham. It was a game where the Quakers got “tattooed”, 48-45, by their opponent, according to then-first year coach Ray Priore, and it was also a turning point of the season. From that day in October onwards, the Red and Blue would win every game. Every Saturday, one more.

This season the phrase has taken on a larger temporal scope. In 2016, it’s not just one more win, one step closer to tying Dartmouth and Harvard for a share of the Ancient Eight crown. It’s one more ring, one more season steeped in success, one step closer to elevating to the Penn football program back to the pedestal of perennial dominance upon which it once stood in the golden years of the Al Bagnoli Era.

Those golden years were something the senior class never knew. When the Class of 2017 was getting recruited to Penn, the Quakers had won three Ivy crowns in the previous four seasons. Battling through losing seasons just wasn’t a part of the conversation.

“Everyone comes to Penn and wants to get a ring,” senior linebacker Donald Panciello said.

A ring would not be in the cards early on, though. In 2013, Penn went 4-6. In 2014 — Bagnoli’s last at the helm before retiring, unretiring and finally settling as Columbia’s head coach in the spring of 2015 — the Quakers continued their dismal slide and finished 2-8.

“You come to Penn, it was right after a championship year and we expected to perform well, perform at a high level,” senior offensive lineman Nick Demes recalled. “The first couple years didn’t go as well as we thought.”

By 2015, jewelry was no longer part of the conversation. Something about two consecutive seasons near the basement of the Ivy League makes that kind of talk seem foolish.

When Priore transitioned from defensive coordinator to head coach, he came up with a new set of talking points for the Quakers. Fundamentals. Foundations. The little things.

“One of the reasons why we were so successful last year was our senior leadership and how focused and determined they were. They had those couple of bad seasons on the taste of their tongues,” Priore said.

“We talked about building the house from the foundation up and laying brick by brick.”

Each brick, one after another. It started with Columbia, a game Penn won, 42-7. Then Yale, then Brown, then Princeton, Harvard and Cornell. And then a ring.

Suddenly, that talk of jewelry didn’t seem so imprudent anymore. Bling still isn’t on Priore’s mind. “It’s all about remembering how you got there,” he said.

“The margin of victory last year was only four or five touchdowns for the games. We had very close contests,” said Priore. “You have to remember how you win and that’s doing the fundamentals and the little things right.”

At the dawn of the 2016 season, the Class of 2017 remembers the bitter aftertaste of their first two seasons playing for Penn. They also remember the lessons of hard work and determination impressed upon them by the champions that came before them.

“The way that Chris Bush and Jake Schwertner were great role models for us, that’s what we’re trying to be for the younger guys on offensive line right now,” Demes said.

According to senior offensive lineman Daniel Poulos, the most important lesson taken away from their former teammates was that of leadership by example.

“Just watching them every day and how they practice, how they work out, the things they do to study and watch extra film. They were nice enough to bring us in and we’d watch film with them and they would help us along the way.”

“They set a really good example for us and that’s what we’re trying to do now as seniors for the younger guys,” Poulos said.

So the tradition of leadership continues, and it’s all according to Priore’s master plan. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving last year, the coach called a meeting with the rising senior class to outline his expectations for the season to come. The final game of 2015 was not yet 24 hours old and already Priore was onto one more.

“We have to build ourselves into a team,” he told his players, still riding the high of victory. “Good teams are followed by great leaders.”

The challenge was set. The Class of 2017 would have to step up, lead by example and begin laying the foundation for another banner year for Penn football. Perhaps a testament to Priore’s faith in his senior class, no captains were named until August 27 because he “truly believe[s] that all seniors, all players have to lead.”

It’s only September, but the foundation for that team of leaders is beginning to take shape. And it’s a foundation built brick by brick.

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