This has gone on long enough for Penn baseball.
In 2014, first-year coach John Yurkow’s squad set a school record with 15 Ivy League wins and tied for first place in the Lou Gehrig Division, but came up brutally short of its first Ancient Eight championship since 1995, falling to Columbia, 4-0, in a one-game playoff for the division title.
In 2015, the narrative was eerily similar; another best regular season performance in program history (16-4 in Ivy play), another one-game playoff loss to Columbia (this time by a score of 4-2), and another season wrapping up without a championship.
Last year, though there was no tie atop the standings, the basic result was the same — yet another second-place finish, this time three games behind Princeton, and yet another year without postseason play.
So as the perennial silver medalists in recent years approach conference play, and as the Class of 2017 enters its last chance to break down that barrier, the challenge is clear for this Red and Blue squad: it’s time to end the drought and finally bring home a ring.
“I’d say there’s a little bit [of extra motivation]; last time to go around, we’ve come in second place, lost in play-in games two of my first three years,” senior pitcher Jake Cousins said. “So last time around, gotta get a ring — that’s our only motivation, the only goal.”
Without a doubt, the Quakers have the returning personnel capable of getting the job done. On the defensive side of the ball, Cousins is just one of several veterans in what could be a historically dominant pitching staff. After finishing second in the Ivy League with a stellar 3.99 team ERA in 2016, the Red and Blue return all of their top five and eight of their top nine arms from a year ago, with Cousins being joined by 2016 All-Ivy selections Mike Reitcheck and Gabe Kleiman atop the rotation.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, the most recognizable name is 2016 Ivy League Player of the Year Tim Graul, but the record-setting senior is far from all returning. Having led the Ancient Eight with 5.0 runs per game and a .282 team batting average last year, Penn returns six of its nine regular offensive starters from last season, including fellow .300+ hitters Matt O’Neill and Matt Tola, suggesting that the Red and Blue should once again be among the conference’s elite on both sides of the ball.
“Every year, it’s always a new team; we’ve had guys that have been in some of those tight games and battles, which is good because they’re tested. Every year, our goal is to win the Ivy League championship, and anything short of that is gonna be a disappointment,” Yurkow said. “We’ve had some good seasons where we’ve come up a little bit short, but I think this team has the makeup and we have the pieces to make a good run in the league.”
But while the depth chart appears to be stacked for the Red and Blue this year, big names alone won’t be enough to put them over the edge. As all athletes and coaches across sports can attest to, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard — and fortunately for Yurkow, his senior class has taken that message to make sure its final year in Philadelphia doesn’t end with the same heartbreak that each of its first three did.
“Those guys do a great job with the preparation and making sure they do all the necessary things so they can have success during the season, and that’s coming from getting the treatment done, how they eat, how they lift, making sure they get the proper amount of sleep, their stretching program,” Yurkow said. “If you watch those guys on an everyday basis, you kind of come to appreciate that. And that’s nice because when the younger guys see that, they think that’s the only way to do things, and if you have the older guys setting that example, they just fall right in line.”
As hungry as the seniors are, though, it may be the development of those younger guys that finally pushes the Quakers to the top. In 2016, a highly-touted freshman class accounted for four of the team’s eight starting position players, with O’Neill and Tola being joined by third baseman Matt McGeagh and first baseman Sean Phelan — not to mention closer Jake Nelson, who seized arguably the most nerve-wracking position in the sport as a rookie.
But with the Class of 2019 now having a year of experience under its belt — and now knowing the pain of second place that the team’s veterans had felt for so long — it could be ready to wreak even further havoc on the league.
“We’re a year older; last year we had so many starting freshmen, and this year we have a bunch of sophomores,” Cousins said. “We have four seniors in the rotation, and we got seven sophomores now instead of freshmen, so I think that extra year of experience can get us over the edge.”
Of course, just because Penn wants its first title in 22 years so badly, that doesn’t mean the rest of the league will simply hand it over. Baseball America, D1Baseball.com and Perfect Game all predicted the Red and Blue to finish second in the Gehrig Division yet again, with the latter two expecting a Princeton squad that returns a league-leading five 2016 All-Ivy selections, including Pitcher of the Year Chad Powers, to repeat.
But though the Tigers will likely be strong again, the Red and Blue appear to have the pieces to make history. With a stacked senior class on the mound, a rapidly maturing core of sophomores, the unquestioned top offensive player in the league and — most importantly — the fuel from the sting of three consecutive season-ending heartbreaks, it could finally be Penn’s time to shine after so many years of disappointment.
“It’d be more incredible, honestly,” Graul said when asked how a team title would compare to his 2016 Ivy POY. “We haven’t been able to win it in 30 years almost, so being able to put our name up there on that outfield wall, and being a captain for that team, would be a feeling that I’d be way more proud of.”
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