By Dave Zeitlin | Hanging on Ray Priore’s office wall are two mementos from Penn’s 2015 football season: a plaque commemorating Priore’s first win as head coach and a photo of the team captains in the gleeful aftermath of his first Ivy League championship.
That the second milestone occurred only two months after the first attests to how much Priore accomplished in his first season running a program that had been in the steady hands of Al Bagnoli for the previous 23 years.
But as his second season at the helm approaches—Penn opens its 2016 campaign versus Lehigh on September 17 and begins Ivy League play against Dartmouth on October 1—Priore is doing his best to ignore those plaques and photos.
“The phenomenal 2015 has been put behind us,” Priore said shortly before preseason camp opened in mid-August. “As a staff, we told the kids going into spring ball that one of the greatest challenges in sports is how you do it year after year.”
Priore is certainly seasoned in the art of title defense. While he was an assistant on Bagnoli’s staff, the Quakers won consecutive titles three separate times. But he knows it isn’t easy, even when teams return a core group of players from one season to the next, as this one will do.
“You always start from scratch again,” Priore said. “You have to understand that the group of kids this year are different than last year, and the question is how do you mold this group?”
Although the 2015 season was filled with memorable moments—from beating Villanova for the first time in 103 years, to knocking off Princeton in a thrilling overtime Homecoming contest, to upsetting Harvard on the road—there is actually some room to improve in 2016.
For starters, winning the Ivy title outright instead of sharing it with two other teams, as they did last year due to a league-opening loss to Dartmouth, is the ultimate objective. And the Quakers will be expected to compete—unlike a year ago, when they were coming off an ugly 2-8 season and picked to finish sixth out of eight teams.
“A lot has to do with perspective and expectation,” senior linebacker Don Panciello said. “We were expected to do nothing last year and came out and did almost everything. It was pretty wild. We won games in some crazy fashion last year, but I feel like if we become a better team —and we have the experience to do so—we can win more games solidly and not have them go down to the wire, not be in the position where we have to block a game-winning field goal [attempt].”
The field goal try to which Panciello refers was perhaps the signature play of the 2015 season—and he was responsible for it. With Princeton lining up for the chip shot in a tied game at the end of regulation, Panciello burst through the line and felt something hit his hand. He wasn’t sure what it was, only later realizing it was the football and that his block allowed Penn to win in overtime and save its season. It also came only a few weeks after another one of the team’s most memorable plays—when Panciello picked up a fumble and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown to clinch Penn’s historic upset of Villanova.
It’s no wonder why his teammates call Panciello—who, on top of his playmaking ability on special teams and defense, has also punted and been a long snapper in practice—“Donnie Football.”
As the leader of a defense that lost Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Tyler Drake C’16 to graduation, Panciello will once again look to make some big plays in 2016. Penn’s offense will also feature a key senior in quarterback Alek Torgersen, a first-team All Ivy player who returns for his third year as a starter. And Torgersen will be throwing the ball to one of the best wide receivers in the Football Championship Subdivision: junior Justin Watson.
After leading the Ivies in receptions (74), receiving yards (1,089), and receiving touchdowns (9), Watson was named a preseason All-American and one of 22 players on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year watch list. His coach and teammates believe he’s poised to have an even better season.
“He’s a freak,” Panciello said of Watson. “No one works harder than that kid. He already has so much talent, but he works that much harder.”
There are other players who could be poised for big seasons in 2016, including senior Cameron Countryman and sophomore Christian Pearson in the receiving corps, running backs Tre Solomon (a junior) and Brian Schoenauer (a senior), and a slew of defensive players who were thrown into the fire as underclassmen last year.
With all of that returning talent, it’s no surprise that Panciello believes that not only is an Ivy title within reach—but also the program’s first undefeated season since 2003.
“I think the guys might reach for it,” the senior said. “We won the Ivy League last year, but let’s take it a step further.”
When Alexa Hoover was a high school junior, she tore her ACL and meniscus, leaving some uncertainty as to how the field hockey star would come back from such a serious knee injury. But as it turned out, her response was pretty much perfect: Hoover played so well her senior season that she was named The Norristown Times Herald Player of the Year and finished her high school career with nearly 100 goals.
So as Hoover once again deals with the aftermath of a torn meniscus, this time between her sophomore and junior years at Penn, she’s optimistic that she’ll be able to build off a remarkable 2015 campaign in which she set the school record for goals (27) and points (63) in a season.
“I have no doubt I’ll be able to come back just as strong, if not stronger,” Hoover said. “It’s just gonna motivate me to want to work hard.”
That isn’t the only source of motivation for Hoover. In large part due to a remarkable scoring tear that earned her a spot in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section as well as a place on the All-American team, the Quakers surged into their season finale versus Princeton with a chance to capture a piece of the Ivy League title for the first time since 2004. But the Tigers won in overtime to secure their 11th straight league title and end Penn’s season in heartbreaking fashion.
While the loss stung, it was fitting that the Quakers’ final game went beyond regulation. Throughout the season, Penn had earned a reputation for dramatic games, going to overtime or double-overtime six times.
“As fun as it is going to overtime, it’s definitely not ideal,” Hoover said. “Every game, Coach [Colleen Fink] was like, ‘You guys are stressing me out! Can we not do this again?’”
Hoover, who aims to find chemistry with some younger players in 2016 following the graduation of Elizabeth Hitti EAS’16 (who set Penn’s record for assists in a season last year), hopes the Quaker can do a better job protecting their lead to avoid overtime. And she also hopes they can build on their 13-3 record in 2015, dethrone Princeton, and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
“We were so close,” Hoover said of last season. “I really thought we had it. I’m gonna keep that feeling in the back of my mind, how much it hurts when you get that close to the tournament and that close to the title. It would just be unbelievable if we can do it—and I really do feel like we have a very good shot.”