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Sixteen receive Penn’s highest athletic honor.

By David Porter

Standing amid what can justly be described as a dazzling array of athletic talent at the recent dinner honoring Penn’s fourth Hall of Fame class, it was impossible not to feel a strong sense of the community that nurtured and developed those talents. As the 16 newest recipients of the University’s highest athletic honor gathered at the Inn at Penn on May 10 to catch up and swap reminiscences of glorious days past, it was not hard to envision each one as a raw, unformed 18-year-old arriving in University City, brimming with potential waiting to be tapped.

The results of that collaboration produced the Hall of Fame Class of 2003, a group that represents 12 sports, five decades, both sexes, and an array of exploits that could fill several volumes. They ranged chronologically from baseball and football star Paul Scull W’29 to track standout Christelle Williams W’89 and former wrestling coach Don Frey, who was head athletic trainer through 1991. Nine were All-Americans in their sport, another was an academic All-American (football player Rich Comizio W’87), and several represented the United States in international competition, including one who competed in two Olympics (rower John Hartigan C’63 WG’65). Another held a world record (swimmer Mary Ellen T. Olcese CW’73). 

The honorees spoke with genuine affection of the coaches who had urged, cajoled, taught, disciplined, and otherwise pushed them to be their best; a university that provided them with the facilities and resources to practice and perfect their craft; and of an athletic department that provided a support system and a stage on which to perform.

Two-time All-American fencer Frank Bartone C’53 fondly recalled Lajos Csiszar, a Hungarian who arrived at Penn in 1948 through the efforts of a wealthy alumnus and within five years had coached Penn to its first national team title in any sport (see next story). Football All-American John Schweder W’50 played for the legendary George Munger, a man described in a Gazette article in the mid-1960s as “invariably pessimistic about winning, but usually full of praise for his players.”

Schweder, nicknamed “Bull” after a freshman teammate said he went through opponents like a bull in a china shop, is one of the Mungermen who reassemble every fall to attend a Penn game. “He was a prince,” Schweder said of his former coach. “A tremendous individual. A gentleman. I never saw him get upset. You really wanted to win for him.” 

Field hockey All-American B.J. Zellers C’84 praised the coaches who fought the little battles that still needed fighting as women sought equal access to athletic resources in the first decade following the passage of Title IX. “You’d have small victories,” she said, like not having to practice on Franklin Field at odd hours. “We were treated well, given all the tools,” Zellers said. “The athletic department was very supportive.”

Olcese was already an accomplished national age-group swimmer when she arrived at Penn in 1969, three years before Title IX was enacted, and she quickly became one of the stars of Penn’s nascent women’s team that practiced in the old Weightman Hall pool. Her successes in becoming the first Penn swimmer to qualify for the national collegiate championships (in the pre-NCAA era of women’s sports) helped broaden the scope of the swimming program. “After that we started to go to more and more regional meets,” she said. “They really began to make a commitment.”

Bill Straub W’73 scored the game-winning goal in the Philadelphia Atoms’ win over Dallas in the 1973 North American Soccer League title game. But the honorable-mention All-American sounded at least as proud of the Quakers’ 5-2 win over vaunted Harvard on a Friday night at Franklin Field in front of 12,500 people, at the time the largest crowd to watch a collegiate soccer game in the United States. “It was an electric evening,” Straub recalled. “It was the biggest win in the program’s history at the time.”

Perry Bromwell C’87, whose feats at the Palestra in the mid-1980s still inspire awe, voiced a thought undoubtedly shared by many when he looked around the room at the star-studded group and said, “This is really amazing.”

Among Penn’s current sports stars, the hits just kept on coming this spring for two athletes whose achievements continue to extend far beyond the confines of the Ivy League.

Alice Pirsu became just the second female tennis player in Ivy history to reach the round of eight at the NCAA singles championships in May (Harvard’s Erika de Lone was the other). The junior from Bucharest, Romania, defeated three players to reach the quarterfinals before losing to Amber Liu of Stanford, the No. 4 player in the country. Pirsu already holds the distinction of being the only Penn women’s tennis player to earn All-American status, a feat she has now accomplished twice.

Sam Burley continues to run rings around the competition for Penn’s track team. The senior from Cheyenne, Wyoming, owns school records in the 800 meters indoors and outdoors, and has placed in the top three in that event at the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships the past two years. This season Burley won the event at the indoor and outdoor Heptagonals and took first place in the 800 meters at the NCAA national championships, beating Jonathan Johnson of Texas Tech by one one-hundreth of a second, with a time of 1:46.50.

Sports columnist David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press and is the author of Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball.

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