March 10, 2020 was a fateful day for Ivy League athletes, and, as we would later find out, an omen of things to come not only for the sports world, but the planet as a whole. For many, the moment the conference brass handed down its decision to cancel the men’s and women’s post-season tournaments is when the COVID-19 pandemic truly became real.
“I got chills,” then-senior basketball forward A.J. Brodeur said. “I’m still speechless.”
Most coaches and student-athletes understood that cancellations were a possibility, but no one truly thought they would happen. As we would continue to find out just how big of an impact that the virus would have on our daily lives, more cancellations followed. The 2020 Penn Relays were postponed, then cancelled. Other major conferences called off their conference title basketball tournaments, and then the big one – March Madness – fell. Months later, the Ivy League announced that there would be no fall sports for the conference, and after that, in the midst of a semester of online learning, we learned that there would be no winter athletics either.
The cancellations arguably had a larger effect on Ivy League athletes than any others, because unlike most other leagues, the conference does not allow graduate students to compete. This meant that in order for Ivy League seniors who missed their seasons to benefit from the NCAA’s offer of an extra year of eligibility, they had to transfer out of the Ancient Eight.
“While we are disappointed for our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, alumni and fans, the health and safety of our communities must be the highest priority,” Penn Athletics Director M. Grace Calhoun wrote in a statement.
However, just because there were no games being played and we were all stuck at home does not mean that there were not newsworthy moments in the Penn sports world in 2020. Prior to the basketball cancellations, both the Quaker men’s and women’s basketball were having solid seasons, with records of 16-11 (8-6 Ivy League) and 20-7 (10-4 Ivy League), respectively.
In the final game of the final season of his storied Penn career, Brodeur scored his 1,829th career point during a drubbing of Columbia. The win not only pushed the Quakers into the Ivy League’s fourth seed (which would have qualified them for the conference tournament had it been played), but Brodeur’s performance broke Penn legend Ernie Beck’s 67-year scoring record, with the 88-year-old Beck in attendance. Brodeur would finish the night with a career point total of 1,832. His record-setting night was not complete, however, as he additionally set all-time Quaker records for most career blocks (196) and games played (119). For good measure, his 21-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist statline was the first recorded triple-double in Penn program history.
“It’s almost even hard to say that I’m breaking that record because he’s a legend,” Brodeur said of Beck. “There’s a reason that record has stood for over 50 years, and it doesn’t feel right to say that I’m taking it from him because that’s a record that’s going to be part of Penn history, so I’m just here to hold on to it until the next guy comes around.”
The final game of the season for the women's team was also a high point. The team played dominant defense, allowing only 36 points in the game (and only 15 in the second half) to post its 18th straight win over Columbia and secure what would have been a No. 2 seed in Ivy Madness.
“They’ve worked really, really hard and sacrificed themselves,” coach Mike McLaughlin said.
Wins over Columbia were not the only bright spots for Penn basketball this year, however. Senior guard Jelani Williams became a leader of a group of about 30 Black Penn athletes who met with Calhoun to fight racism in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.
“There’s a lot that Penn can do outside of just trying to appear that they’re on the right side of this issue, because at the end of the day, as a school with a multi-billion dollar endowment with very powerful alums, very powerful students, and very powerful people, there is a responsibility there for them to affect change in the education sphere,” Williams said. “Whether that be helping not only to fund Philly public schools, but also to help support them in terms of a curriculum, programming, or things like that, I just think that there needs to be way more investment from Penn into the surrounding community.”
Williams and his fellow student-athletes, including Penn volleyball senior Raven Sulaimon and track seniors Marvin Morgan and Demetri Whitsett, worked with Calhoun to craft a Plan of Action to combat racism. Some points on the plan include “expand[ing] implicit bias and microaggression training to all coaches, staff, and student-athletes,” “assess[ing] how Penn Athletics can better support Black student-athletes in their academic pursuits,” and “grow[ing] our current civic engagement programming with a focus on improving the social, athletic, and educational experience of Black and Brown youth in the West Philadelphia community.”
As Williams and others look to the present and future for improvement, there was also reason to look back to the past this year. After a nearly century-long period from 1842 to 1924 of on-again, off-again competitive cricket at Penn, the school’s oldest sport is still going strong in the form of a club team. In contrast, some may have wondered where the Quakers’ historic bowling team went. With the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, many looked back to the 40 medals and other impressive achievements that Quaker track and field athletes have racked up at the Games over the years. Chief among them are those of John Baxter Taylor, the first Black athlete to win Olympic gold for the United States. And for all of us languishing in the midst of our current pandemic, the success of Penn football despite the 1918 influenza pandemic offers hope for the future.
The future indeed appears bright for Penn sports, with a plethora of new faces coming into the fold. Controversial women’s volleyball coach Iain Braddak resigned after “offensive” posters were found in the team locker room. Braddak had already been a recipient of various complaints of the creation of an unhealthy team environment that led to three athletes leaving the team and eight filing formal grievances against the coach. He was replaced by former Villanova assistant coach Meredith Schamun, who hopes to right the ship. She seems to have what it takes, having posted an impressive 39-23 record in her two years with the Wildcats.
After women’s soccer coach Nicole Van Dyke left after five years with the Quakers to take the same job at the Washington, she was replaced by former Holy Cross head coach Casey Brown. Brown was immensely successful in her four years in the Patriot League, winning the second-highest number of conference games in Holy Cross program history and helped five players become named to the All-League team, the most since the turn of the century.
Finally, after almost 20 years with Penn gymnastics, coach John Ceralde stepped down. In five years as an assistant and 14 as head coach, Ceralde led the team to back-to-back Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) titles in 2012 and 2013, and helped nine gymnasts compete individually at the NCAA Championships. He is replaced by former Penn gymnast and assistant coach for the past four years under Ceralde, Kirsten Becker. She was a member of those back-to-back championship teams and was named ECAC Gymnast of the Year, Penn’s nominee for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award, and Penn’s Most Valuable Gymnast twice.
This year has been, without a doubt, a difficult one for almost everyone. In spite of the challenges faced by many, looking back at everything that was accomplished even in the midst of a pandemic shows that there is a light at the end of the tunnel ahead.