By Dave Zeitlin | As John Yurkow walked to the outfield grass of Meiklejohn Stadium to ad dress his dejected players last May, it dawned on him that he didn’t know what to say. In the coming days, of course, he would tell them how special they made his first season as Penn’s head baseball coach, and he would thank the seniors for helping turn the program around. But in that moment, just after the Quakers’ season ended with a 4-0 home loss to Columbia in a one-game playoff for the Ivy League’s Lou Gehrig Division title, he was simply too distraught to dig into his bag of pick-me-ups.
“Guys, I wasn’t prepared to make this speech—not yet,” Yurkow told them, before letting one of his players take over the postgame talk.
Yurkow had been confident that Penn would beat Columbia, advance to the Ivy League Championship Series, and then vie for the program’s first NCAA tournament regional appearance since 1995. That’s how good he felt about the 2014 Quakers, who overcame a rough 2-9 start to win 11 straight at one point and finish with the program’s most Ivy League victories (15) in 25 years.
“We really felt like we were the best team in the league,” Yurkow said in January. “It came down to a one-game playoff and they just outplayed us. I think it left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth—which is a good thing in a way. It’s motivating guys moving into this year.”
Catcher Austin Bossart, the squad’s senior leader, says the team is entering the 2015 campaign with a transformed attitude after getting “our first taste in a while of a good season.”
“From my experience, guys weren’t buying into things before,” Bossart said. “The culture of winning wasn’t there like it is now.”
Bossart praised Yurkow for bringing about that change, while Yurkow shifted the credit back to Bossart, who he called “the best catcher I’ve ever coached in college baseball.” More than his impressive stats or his ability to throw out runners, Bossart is a hard-working, lead-by-example player whom Yurkow credits with helping to transform the dynamic of a program that had been “hovering around mediocrity for a long time.”
“There’s been a pretty big shift in the mindset of our players,” said Yurkow, who was an assistant coach at Penn for seven seasons before getting promoted to replace John Cole in July 2013. “The energy level is a lot different now.”
The talent is there too. Bossart headlines a rich group of returning players including senior pitcher Connor Cuff and junior shortstop Ryan Mincher. All three were first team All-Ivy selections last season.
Cuff figures to be the ace of the staff, but Yurkow stressed that the strength of the team lies in its pitching depth, with senior Ronnie Glenn and sophomores Jake Cousins and Mike Reitcheck among those primed for big seasons.
“It’s the best team I’ve been a part of,” said Bossart. “The depth we have is amazing.”
Yurkow believes his veteran squad is poised to bring the program back to the glory days of the 1990s, when Major Leaguers-to-be Doug Glanville EAS’93 and Mark DeRosa W’97 were wearing the Red and Blue.
“It’s been so long,” Yurkow said. “We’re due. And if you’re going to pick a team to do it with, this is the team.”
The Evolution of Men’s Lacrosse
Last season, in what was surely one of the best individual performances for a Penn athlete in recent memory, Zack Losco C’14 scored four goals in the final quarter, including the game-winner with 49 seconds remaining, to lift the men’s lacrosse team to a stunning come-from-behind win over Cornell in the Ivy League tournament semifinals.
The win catapulted the Quakers into the Ivy League title game against Harvard, which they won to earn an automatic spot in the NCAA tournament and the program’s first postseason home game since 1988.
Losco has since graduated, taking last season’s fellow standout seniors Brian Feeney C’14, Maxx Meyer W’14, and Alex Blonsky C’14 with him. But Murphy believes that the mentality they left behind will stand the 2015 Quakers in even better stead.
“Their fingerprints are all over our team,” he said. “The success that we have in 2015 will really be on their shoulders.”
In his six years at the helm, Murphy has steadily built the Quakers into a nationally renowned team. New players have constantly seized the opportunity when others have moved on. So Murphy fully expects seniors like midfielder Joe McCallion and defender Matt McMahon to keep the Quakers near the top of the loaded conference and in the national rankings.
Both McCallion and McMahon were selected in January’s Major League Lacrosse draft and will turn pro after their final collegiate season.
“Every year it’s going to be a new set of guys stepping up,” Murphy said. “I feel like Joe McCallion has been a leader for us for three years but hasn’t played that true lead role yet. I think he’s clearly ready for that now. It’s about guys taking advantage of those opportunities when they arise.”
Like the baseball team, Murphy’s squad also heads into the 2015 campaign with a bad taste in its mouth after last season ended in the first round of the NCAA tournament with a heartbreaking loss to neighborhood rival Drexel.
But looking back on it now, Murphy realizes that just getting to the NCAA tourney was a big step for the Quakers—and, he hopes, a precursor to making a deeper run in the 2015 postseason and perhaps a spot in the Final Four at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.
“Last year, we took a huge step forward as a program to win the Ivy championship and be a No. 4 seed [in the NCAA tournament] and get a home game,” Murphy said. “And we just weren’t ready for that moment.”
When the moment comes again, this time the Quakers believe they’ll be ready.
Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes frequently for the Gazette.