In a season filled with sweetness for Penn baseball, the ending is undeniably sour.
On Monday afternoon, the Quakers (34-16, 16-5 Ivy) fell to Southern Mississippi 11-7 in the final of the NCAA Auburn Regional, stopping the Red and Blue just one win away from becoming the first team in Ivy League history to advance to the Super Regional round of the tournament. For the second straight game Penn struggled to slow down the Golden Eagles' (45-18, 22-8 Sun Belt) offense, allowing 13 hits and three innings of three or more runs to bring the Quakers’ storybook campaign to a bitter conclusion.
“This is the tightest a team has ever been for me — it just feels like a family … it’s hard,” junior left fielder Calvin Brown said. “I think we earned a lot of people’s respect this weekend, and that’s the team that we wanted to be. A team that was hard-working, and one that’s gonna fight it out ‘till the end.”
After winning both the regular season title and postseason Ivy League championship, the Quakers advanced to their first NCAA Tournament since 1995 and earned a matchup with the highly touted Auburn Tigers. Penn entered the game as a massive underdog, but knocked off the regional host with a dramatic 11th-inning victory, then followed that performance with another rousing win over Samford on Saturday night.
The Red and Blue needed just one win over the course of two games against Southern Mississippi to take the regional crown. But after an eight-run avalanche in the ninth won the first game for the Golden Eagles, Monday’s matchup morphed into a winner-take-all fight for the title. Both offenses came to play, combining for 24 hits and 18 runs scored, but in the end, it was Southern Mississippi’s bats that rang louder.
“We just made too many mistakes, again,” coach John Yurkow said, after the Quakers combined for five errors over their two matchups with the Golden Eagles. “Playing good teams, you can’t give them extra opportunities … they just fight you tooth and nail.”
In a battle of beleaguered pitching staffs, Penn senior right-handed pitcher Brian Zeldin faced off against Southern Mississippi hurler Tanner Hall, a first-team All-American. Zeldin has appeared in just nine games this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2022, and had not started a game before Monday.
But while the Golden Eagles’ staff searched for answers, Zeldin left no doubt. The Atlanta native contained the potent Southern Mississippi offense through three innings of work, allowing just two hits and one run. In the Ivy League Tournament, Zeldin excelled in a similarly titanic situation against Columbia when starter Owen Coady was pulled after just two outs. With history on the line, Zeldin delivered again.
Penn’s early offense was powered by a huge performance from the back of the order — a young group playing far beyond their years. Yurkow has said repeatedly that the trio of freshmen right fielder Jarrett Pokrovsky, designated hitter Davis Baker, and second baseman Ryan Taylor “don’t play like freshman” — and that was never truer than Monday afternoon, when they rattled off three straight doubles that led to a 5-1 Quaker lead.
“I feel like we were in a good spot [up 5-1]” Yurkow said. “But you’re playing a tough opponent. They’re not gonna go away. And you’re looking down the bullpen and you know you’re gonna be a little short-handed.”
That lead evaporated in the bottom of the fourth, when Southern Mississippi's bats caught fire. Zeldin was replaced by senior left-handed pitcher David Shoemaker, who Yurkow said was playing through a torn labrum, and allowed six Golden Eagles to reach base without recording an out.
Unlike Sunday’s barrage in the ninth, the Red and Blue stemmed the bleeding before it became fatal. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Ryan Dromboski relieved Shoemaker and plugged up the wound, allowing one hit but following it with a flyout and a double play, knotting the game at five.
Dromboski also piloted a scoreless inning in the fifth before Southern Mississippi shortstop Dustin Dickerson blasted a three-run shot over the “Green Monster” left field wall at Plainsman Park. Dickerson’s fifth home run of the regional gave the Golden Eagles an 8-5 lead to end the sixth, though Penn responded with a pair of hits in the seventh to plate two and trim the deficit to one.
But as the Quakers sought one final run to tie the game and keep their magical season alive, Southern Mississippi reliever Will Armistead took the mound and ended the party. Armisted struck out five and allowed just one hit over the final 2.2 innings, ultimately felling the heart of Penn’s lineup in the ninth to turn out the lights on the Quakers’ season.
“He was mixing pitches pretty well, he was pitching the zone well,” Brown said. “Kind of kept you on your toes.”
Despite the disappointing conclusion, Penn’s season is one to be proud of. It is rare that an Ivy League school punches so far above its weight, battling and defeating some of the top programs in the nation.
“It was tough — that last out, for me. It was tough,” Yurkow said. “About five or six years ago, I started telling people that our goal was to go win a regional. People looked at me and nodded their head, I don’t know how many of them really believed me. I think quite a few after I walked away probably gave a chuckle. But we made a pretty good run at it this weekend. I’m proud of what these guys did.”
Even in such a successful campaign, the final blow stings all the same.