The regular season hasn’t even started yet, but Penn is already the team to beat.
The 2019 baseball season ended in a devastating fashion, with the Quakers dropping from second to fourth place on the final day of the regular season and falling right out of contention for the Ivy League Championship. But that’s all in the past now, and Penn is topping the preseason polls from D1Baseball and Ivy League Media as the early favorite to win the Ivy trophy and earn a berth to the NCAA Championship.
Despite last season’s unfulfilling ending, the Red and Blue have a lot to be proud of. Offensively, Penn led the Ivy League in almost every hitting category, including team batting average (.334), runs (354), and hits (533). The Quakers finished the season with the second-highest batting average out of all Division I teams, and this year they intend to preserve that offensive dominance.
One might expect that the graduation of two offensive powerhouses, catcher Matt O’Neill and first baseman Sean Phelan, could put a dent in those stats. O’Neill led the 2019 Quakers in batting average (.405) and on-base percentage (.527), while Phelan had the most hits (65), including 18 doubles and six home runs. However, the Quakers are confident that the depth of their roster will more than make up for the loss of two of their captains and All-Ivy honorees.
“Losing O’Neill and Phelan — that was a big loss, but honestly I think they left us in a good place,” sophomore infielder Josh Hood said. “Their leadership last year was over-the-top awesome, so I think we definitely have the talent here to make up for that. And we’re in even better shape having [had] their leadership and their imprint that they left us to build on.”
The rest of the lineup is likely to stay relatively intact, with the Quakers returning six starting position players, among them four of eight total All-Ivy honorees. That list includes the 2019 Ivy League Rookie of the Year in Hood, who led the team with eight home runs and 25 extra-base hits. His .331 batting average was good for fourth on the team in his first collegiate season.
“I just plan to keep the same game plan,” Hood said. “I’ve always been the type of guy that’s always trying to get better, so I never try and look at my past accomplishments as a ceiling.”
Fellow first team All-Ivy selection in 2019 and one of three captains, senior outfielder Peter Matt, will also look to lead the Quakers offensively. Matt was a serious threat on the basepaths last season, leading the Ivy League with 46 runs and notching a team-high 14 stolen bases.
For a real shot at the Ivy Tournament, however, defensive development must be a priority for the Quakers. Penn had the most errors (56) and second-lowest fielding percentage (.964) in the Ivy League in 2019.
“I will say I think we’re more athletic defensively,” coach John Yurkow said. "Our foot speed is better. I think our arm strength is better all around, so I think you’re going to see a pretty significant improvement, especially with the infield defense.”
Penn will also feel the loss of O’Neill behind the plate, as he had cemented himself as one of the best catchers in the Ivy League throughout his four years at Penn. The starting job looks to be taken over by junior Jackson Petersen and sophomore Andrew Hernandez, who each saw some time on the field last season.
“I don’t know if you ever replace a player like Matt O’Neill, but I’d like to think [Petersen and Hernandez] will be able to pick up the slack and do a very good job for us,” Yurkow said. “They both had very good summers in summer ball and came back and played well in the fall. I feel pretty confident about those two guys being able to fill in there.”
The Red and Blue pitching staff will be spearheaded by senior Christian Scafidi, reigning Ivy League Pitcher of the Year and one of Penn’s captains. Coming off a junior season with an ERA of 2.62 and 59 strikeouts, Scafidi will lead a veteran rotation on the mound that includes seniors Mitchell Holcomb and John Alan Kendrick.
Left-hander Joe Miller will be another name to watch in the bullpen. The sophomore posted an ERA of 4.76 and totaled 41 strikeouts in his rookie season for a record of 4-1.
A younger pitching class might be on the rise, too. In D1Baseball’s preseason poll, freshman left-hander Owen Coady was projected to receive the Ivy League Rookie of the Year honor in 2020.
Coady won’t be the only freshman looking to make an impact in his first season with the Quakers.
“There’s definitely some guys who I think as the season goes on will get some opportunities, some of the younger players. I just don’t know how long it’ll be,” Yurkow said. “That’s one of the good things about having depth and having all the older guys back: you don’t really have to rely on freshmen. So it’ll be nice to sprinkle them in so they can get their feet wet.”
There are also changes in the coaching staff this season. New assistant coach Joe Brooks has replaced Will Kaufman, who left the Quakers at the end of the 2019 season to serve as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at NCAA Division II Erskine College.
The Quakers’ first test will come this weekend when Penn travels to Marietta, GA to face Kennesaw State for a three-game series. Ivy play will commence March 21, when the Red and Blue host Dartmouth at Meiklejohn Stadium.
If all goes according to plan, the Quakers might have a shot at their first Ivy League title since 1995. But right now, they need to take it one game at a time.