It’s perhaps the most universal constant in the college sports world: roster turnover.
But for Penn baseball, this year takes it to a new level.
Fresh off their first appearance in the Ivy League Championship Series since 2007, the Quakers will have an uphill battle to get back there. But even after losing a program-record three players to the professional ranks, not to mention two more former first team All-Ivy picks who didn’t hear their names called, Penn is dead set on reloading rather than rebuilding.
“We have a lot of young guys who are talented in their own right, and the idea that they have to try to make up for what we lost isn’t true,” senior pitcher Gabe Kleiman said. “People are sleeping on us a little bit, and it just gives us a little bit more drive to prove all those people wrong.”
It looked like 2017 would finally be the year for Penn to break its 22-year conference title drought, when the Quakers won the now-defunct Lou Gehrig Division over Columbia.
But senior stars like Tim Graul, Jake Cousins, and Mike Reitcheck couldn’t prevent Penn from being swept by Yale in the Ivy title series, forcing the Quakers to another offseason of agony.
“We used it as fuel, because we went into that series thinking that we definitely could beat Yale,” sophomore first baseman Chris Adams said. “So we want to earn our way back there, and when we earn our way back there, we’re not gonna let it get away from us again.”
Penn’s offense returns all but one starting position player from 2017, but that one was 2016 Ivy League Player of the Year Tim Graul. In 20 Ivy League games last season, Graul led the conference in batting average (.468) and total bases (60), with a ridiculous on-base plus slugging of 1.296.
As talented as Graul was, it’s on the other side of the ball where the Quakers’ losses might prove most difficult to overcome.
All three of Penn’s departed draft picks — Cousins, Adam Bleday, and Billy Lescher — were pitchers. Led by such a strong senior group, Penn set an all-time school record with 350 strikeouts in 45 games, giving this year’s cast a tall order.
But one sign of hope comes in the emergence of sophomore pitcher Mitchell Holcomb, who has had no issue sliding into the spotlight after the departure of his former mentors. After primarily starting non-Ivy contests last season, Holcomb holds a 2.05 ERA so far and already has won two Ivy League Pitcher of the Week awards.
“When I came to Penn, I got some advice; it was, ‘find the best guy on the staff and then do what he does,’ and I was able to kind of do that four times over,” Holcomb said. “This year, I kind of had to develop my own stuff to evolve into someone that can lead people and own that role.”
Another reason of optimism comes from the Quakers’ recent past. The Quakers own a 53-27 record in Ivy play in coach John Yurkow’s tenure, having finished in the top half of the conference in all four seasons. And players see no reason to stop that trend now.
“It’s tough losing guys like that. But every year we’ve seen it, and the next year somebody’s stepped up,” junior first baseman Sean Phelan said. “We find a way to get it done and win games. And I’m not too concerned it’ll be different this year.”
Ultimately, though the depth chart has changed for the Red and Blue, the mentality hasn’t. Penn still has motivation of ending the conference’s longest active championship drought and the confidence of knowing how close it was to doing so. And that combination might be enough for the Quakers to make history.
“We have a sign in our locker room that says how many days there are to the Ivy championship, and that gets us going every day,” Holcomb said. “After it got taken away from us last year, that hurts for a lot of our guys; that title is something that a lot of our guys want bad, and it’s something that a lot of guys need.”
Our take: Penn won’t fall off too far, if at all, from where it’s been. There’s too much veteran talent on the offensive side, pitchers Kleiman and Holcomb are more than capable of leading a solid staff, and the drive is as high as ever after last year’s finish. But around the league, there might just be too much returning talent; Yale and Columbia each return six All-Ivy selections to Penn’s two, and the Lions only graduated three total players. We have the Quakers finishing in third place, though a few lucky bounces can have the Quakers right there with anyone they face.