How does David conquer Goliath? By refusing to accept his role as the underdog.
It is through that unshakeable confidence that Penn baseball (34-14, 16-5 Ivy) has played their way into the championship game at the Auburn regional of the NCAA National Championship, defying the odds and earning the program its most wins in a single NCAA Tournament in history. After knocking off No. 13-seeded Auburn (34-23-1, 17-13 SEC) 6-3 in 11 innings on Friday night, the Quakers compounded the magic with a 5-4 victory over Samford (37-24, 15-6 SoCon), earning the Red and Blue a title game appearance that is surprising to everyone but them.
“We’re a special group right now,” junior third baseman Wyatt Henseler said. “We have more confidence than we’ve ever had, regardless of who we’re playing.”
After sweeping its way through the Ivy League Tournament, Penn claimed the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, earning a date with the nationally renowned Tigers, who earned a trip to Omaha, Neb. for the College World Series last season and whose conference — the SEC — has a record-tying 10 teams in this year's national championship.
The path to Penn’s victory was a familiar road: dominance from sophomore right-handed pitcher Ryan Dromboski. After perhaps his worst outing of the season against Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament, the Ivy League’s newly crowned Pitcher of the Year took the mound with something to prove. In a phenomenal performance from the mustached hurler, Dromboski struck out eight Auburn batters and threw five scoreless innings before a barrage of hits from the Tigers in the sixth.
Penn’s offense was quiet early, only managing their first hit in the fourth inning, when they took a 1-0 advantage off hits from Henseler and senior catcher Jackson Appel. After a back-and-forth battle through the final five innings, the game went to extra innings all tied at three. After a scoreless 10th, the Quakers laid down three consecutive bunts in the 11th to score three runs and stun the host Tigers in front of their home crowd at Plainsman Park for the first victory for an Ivy League team over an SEC opponent in NCAA Tournament history.
“We’re a really good team with really good well-rounded chemistry,” Henseler said. “I think this is the closest team I’ve ever been a part of.”
Friday’s momentum hurtled into Saturday, when Penn jumped on Samford early with the same first inning attack that has helped them to so many wins this season. The Quakers scored in the first frame in all three of their games during the Ivy League Tournament and renewed the tradition on Saturday, rattling off three hits for an early 2-0 edge.
Penn’s identity as a team revolves around their pitching staff, and that edge was never more pivotal than in this weekend’s wins. After Dromboski’s stellar performance on Friday, the Quakers had another sub-3.10 ERA pitcher waiting in the wings: junior right-hander Cole Zaffiro.
“I didn’t think we could get a better start than we got last night out of [Dromboski], and lo and behold, [Zaffiro] was even better,” coach John Yurkow said.
Zaffiro, a hero in Penn’s Ivy League Championship game victory over Princeton, was brilliant again, fanning eight in 8.0 innings — his longest outing of the season. Zaffiro's signature fastball was dealing, but during the game, Samford coach Casey Dunn described the Bulldogs as “a really good fastball-hitting team,” remaining confident that they would break through against the first-team All-Ivy pitcher.
That confidence was vindicated in the eighth, when Samford’s Garrett Staton fired a two-run shot, putting the Bulldogs on the board and ending Zaffiro’s night. After a one-two-three inning from Penn in the top of the ninth, the Quaker defense took the field nursing a 5-2 advantage and just three outs away from a regional final berth.
What followed was an incredibly mistake-laden half-inning, which featured a brush with collapse that risked two days of outstanding effort. Junior right-handed pitcher Edward Sarti hit two Bulldog batters and walked another before being replaced by senior southpaw David Shoemaker. Samford added a run on a groundout — bringing the score to 5-3 — before another critical Penn error nearly cost them the game. Samford’s Josh Rodriguez hit a grounder up the middle, where Penn freshman second baseman Ryan Taylor readied for a routine throw to first.
Yurkow said that Taylor “never really got set” on the throw, nearly sailing it over the head of senior first baseman Ben Miller. Rodriguez reached first, but Miller corralled the throw and fired to third, where Henseler narrowly tagged out Sanford's Aaron Walton. After video review, the umpires determined Henseler beat Walton to the bag, ending the game and sending the Quakers on.
“That’s never how you want to end a game,” Yurkow said. “But a win is a win.”
Penn is now riding a 10-game win streak into tomorrow’s title game, where their opponent will depend on the result between Samford and Southern Mississippi earlier Sunday. But one thing is certain: regardless of who the Quakers face, their belief is unwavering.
“We’re just a really tight group of guys, and we’re just having fun playing baseball,” Zaffiro said. “We’re playing our best baseball in June, and we’re just going to try to keep that going.”