Back in high school, when Jackson Donahue competed for the Middlesex Magic in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), he played a few games against a guard from New Jersey who got on his nerves time and time again.
“I was like, oh man, I really don’t like this kid,” Donahue said.
That player’s name? Jake Silpe.
As it turned out, Donahue would have to deal with the “kid” he initially disliked a lot more often, as both he and Silpe committed to play for Penn men’s basketball starting in the fall of 2015. Despite the less-than-ideal start to their relationship, the now-senior guards and captains share more similarities than one might think.
“We have that same mentality,” Donahue said. “You just have to outwork the other guy and you have to will your way to get whatever you need to do done.”
Their career arcs haven’t been so different either. Donahue and Silpe arrived at Penn during the first year of coach Steve Donahue’s tenure (no relation to Jackson) anticipating a bench role, but when Antonio Woods and Tony Hicks left the team, the Quakers were suddenly in desperate need of help at the guard positions. The two freshmen were unexpectedly thrust into the fire, making a combined 37 starts that season.
However, their playing time soon changed dramatically in the other direction. The return of now-senior Woods from academic suspension and the arrival of now-junior guards Ryan Betley and Devon Goodman meant that someone had to lose minutes, and Donahue and Silpe ended up on the receiving end. Forced onto the bench and out of the spotlight, the two players could only do one thing: work harder.
“It was difficult at times because in particular Jake went from starting to not playing at all. He got in the gym and got better and made us a better team by practicing really hard,” coach Donahue said. “Jackson is the same way. Whatever his role is, he does it to the best of his ability.”
The change wasn’t easy for Donahue and Silpe, but they found ways to handle their decreased role on the court and translate it into success.
“One of the biggest things for me was being engaged. Although I came off the bench and was on the bench, [I] just [focused on] being committed to the team, putting in extra work over the summer, getting in the gym, and working on my weaknesses,” Silpe said.
For Silpe, this work has paid off. He has competed in every game this season and averaged 21.5 minutes, about triple the numbers he amassed the previous two years in limited appearances.
However, the two Quakers don’t just make their presence felt during competition. Now captains, Donahue and Silpe set an example for the rest of the team to follow every single day.
“[They do] a lot of stuff in practice, in drills, in long days when things aren’t going as well as you hope," coach Donahue said. "Those two guys really understand how this program was built and how we can maintain this level. They understand it daily.”
While Silpe focuses on doing the little things right and developing a trust between himself and his peers, Donahue’s leadership style is much louder. If he wants his teammates to know something, he lets them hear it.
“My vocal leadership in particular has been the strongest aspect of my game, and I think that’s something I bring to this team and something I do well,” Jackson said. “I think that being able to have that unwavering characteristic to my game has been great for the team and great for myself individually.”
Those intangibles don’t just help Donahue succeed off the court. According to his teammate, Donahue’s personality allows his in-game performance to improve as well.
“Jackson just brings a spark, [an] energy, a lot of passion and emotion,” Silpe said. “In games where there are a lot of fans and it’s a really good atmosphere, Jackson really excels because he takes that all in. There’s no stage he can’t perform on.”
While a long time has passed since their AAU days, not everything has changed for Donahue and Silpe. When they compete against each other on the court, emotions run high and the level of intensity is elevated significantly.
“[Silpe’s] competitive. We go toe-to-toe every day at practice,” Jackson said. “You hate playing against him but you love playing with him.”
Donahue and Silpe’s time as Quakers is almost over. After this season, the two captains will graduate, and the Red and Blue will have to find a way to make up for their leadership, passion, and dedication. When asked how the team would cope with their absence, coach Donahue’s simple answer said it all.
“I don’t take them for granted. I’m going to miss them.”
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