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By David Porter

After a seemingly interminable stretch of years—well, five—in which bad bounces, bad calls, bad injuries, and plain bad luck relegated Penn’s football team to the unaccustomed role of also-rans, the Quakers are back on top as champions of the Ivy League.

But to simply say that the football gods finally deemed Penn worthy of a few breaks this fall after punishing them for the last several years would minimize the accomplishments of this resilient group—which, after losing its first two games, bounced back to chart a different course and reeled off eight straight wins in the face of injuries to several key players. 

This Quaker team meshed gradually during the season, mainly due to the aforementioned injuries to players like, oh, the first-, second- and third-string quarterbacks, both starting running backs, and a couple of starting defensive backs. By the time everyone got healthy, there was no slowing them. The team saved perhaps its best game of the season for last, a 34-0 hammering of overmatched Cornell at Franklin Field that sealed the title and the undefeated season they’d coveted. It was especially meaningful for a senior class that didn’t want to depart title-less like the Classes of 2007 and 2008 had.

“You’d see videos and pictures of guys in years past holding up the trophy, and coming into this year we’d never got to that point,” said senior defensive back and co-captain Chris Wynn. “It was certainly in the back of all our minds the entire year. To see the trophy in front of us and holding it, was indescribable.”

It bears mentioning that the last class before the recent ones to graduate without at least sharing an Ivy title—the Class of 1992—was the first to play under a newcomer named Al Bagnoli, hired by Penn after a successful stint at Union College to pull the Quakers out of the doldrums of three consecutive losing seasons. After the win over Cornell that gave him his unprecedented seventh undisputed Ivy title and his fifth undefeated Ivy season, Bagnoli was candid when discussing the program’s recent difficulties.

“You go longer than two or three years [without a title] here and it’s considered a disaster, which I’m not sure is appropriate,” he said. “But that’s the world in which we live. Obviously it was too long, but I couldn’t be happier for our kids. They have to set the bar. It starts with the captains, the seniors, and everybody kind of follows them. If you get them and your best players to put their best foot forward, everything else generally falls into line.”

Penn got exceptional performances from players one would expect, like senior linebacker Jake Lewko (team leader in tackles, co-Ivy player of the year), junior Andrew Samson (league-leading 11 field goals) and fellow Ivy first-teamers Wynn and senior Jonathan Moore; and from others who burst on the scene, grabbed their opportunity and ran with it. Freshman running back Lyle Marsh started the season on the bench and finished it as the league’s fifth-leading rusher after injuries limited playing time for juniors Mike DiMaggio and Bradford Blackman. Sophomore John Hurley, No. 4 on the depth chart at quarterback, started and won against Bucknell to even Penn’s record at 2-2 and build momentum for the following week’s win at Columbia. 

“I always felt we were dangerously close to being good,” Bagnoli said. “Then we finally started getting everybody healthy, and you began to see the maturation of the team beginning with Yale, then Brown, then Harvard, Princeton, and peaking into the Cornell game, which might have been our best overall game top to bottom. That’s what you want to do in week 10.”

It is generally agreed that a 14-7 overtime win at Brown in week 7 was the turning point for the Quakers, and not just because it made them 5-2 overall and 4-0 in the Ivy League. Penn had lost its previous six overtime games, some in agonizing fashion. This time, it was made to look easy. Senior wide receiver Kyle Derham hauled in a touchdown pass from senior Kyle Olson and the defense stopped Brown on downs. The game marked a turning point for Derham as well, the easygoing North Carolinian said later.

“Around the Brown game, I knew I needed to step up and get the offense going,” he said. “We had such a good running attack, as wide receivers we knew we had to step up and make some plays—not just catch the ball, but catch and make the play after.”

The constant, as usual, was a stout defense that may have been the best Penn unit in a long time—high praise considering some of the Bagnoli-led teams that have terrorized Ivy League opponents over the last 18 years. Its crowning achievement may have been holding a Harvard team that had scored 113 points in its previous three games to one measly touchdown in a 17-7 win in a monsoon in Boston on November 14.  

The 2009 edition allowed an average of five points over its last seven games and held opponents scoreless twice. The past provides a measuring stick and motivator, Lewko said, which may help explain  the overall success of a program that has won or shared 13 Ivy titles since Coach Jerry Berndt dragged the Quakers out of the Ivy League basement in the 1980s.

“I think every year everyone sees what the last team did and says, ‘You know, we don’t want them to be remembered as the best, we want to be remembered as the best,’” Lewko said. “So we always want to strive to be a few steps better. Over time, it just builds.”

David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.

Volleyball Bounces Back

A year ago most of the news surrounding volleyball centered on head coach Kerry Carr’s battle with breast cancer. This year the team retook center stage with a startling turnaround that culminated with an Ivy title, 23-6 overall record, and advancement to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“This one was different for a lot of reasons,” said Carr, who has won four Ivy titles at Penn. “I was away from the team for a while, and to be able to come back and know you can do all the things you want to do is important. And this was an entirely different group of girls from the last title [in 2003].”

Carr, who said she is cancer-free and feels “wonderful,” also said this year’s team surprised her with its ability to focus on the immediate goals and not look too far ahead. “We didn’t do it on sheer muscle. I thought we’d be stronger next year, actually. But it was because it was not expected that I enjoyed it so much.”

Led by Ivy player-of-the-year, senior Elizabeth Semmens; freshman Lauren Martin, the league rookie-of-the-year; and fellow Ivy first-teamers Megan Tryon and Madison Wojciechowski, both juniors, Penn went 13-1 in the Ivy League and defeated Army in the NCAA first round for its first win in the tournament.


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