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A fine football season fell just short. 

By David Porter

The sense of promise unfulfilled hung heavy over Penn’s season-ending 38-14 win over Cornell on November 17 at Franklin Field, and nowhere more so than in the post-game interview room where senior quarterback Gavin Hoffman, junior linebacker Travis Belden, and senior running back Kris Ryan attempted to put into words the bittersweet feelings produced by the preceding seven days.

The record books will show that the 2001 Quakers finished 8-1; fielded one of the best defenses in all of Division I-AA; put 17 players on various all-Ivy League teams; and featured two players, Hoffman and Ryan, who finished their careers as, respectively, the school’s all-time leading passer and rusher. What they will not show is the emotional valley the Quakers had to climb out of after a wrenching 28-21 loss to Harvard on November 10 that crushed any hopes of an undefeated season and undisputed Ivy League title. That they made that climb the next week after spotting Cornell a 14-0 lead may reveal more about this team than the previous seven wins could have.

“I hate to say it, but I think probably 90 percent of the guys on the defense weren’t ready to play,” Belden said after the Cornell game. “It’s tough to describe the emotions you go through in such a huge game as Harvard. I think for a lot of guys on the team it was almost like the end of the world when we lost. The coaches definitely did a good job getting us ready [for Cornell], but that thought’s still in the back of your mind.”

The Harvard game had loomed on the calendar as both the Crimson and Quakers advanced through their schedules without a loss. Penn took a 14-0 lead but let the advantage evaporate as Harvard scored four unanswered touchdowns. A late score on a pass from Hoffman to senior Rob Milanese brought Penn to within seven points, but a desperation pass to Milanese in the final seconds did not connect and sealed the loss. The Crimson went on to defeat Yale the next week, 35-23, to cap an undefeated season. 

Penn’s defense made a bold opening statement in a 37-0 shutout of Lafayette in the season’s first game and never let up after that, finishing first in the nation in rushing defense (58.4 yards per game), third in scoring defense (11.4 points per game), and 13th in total defense (284 yards per game). Of that group, Belden, along with defensive linemen John and Ed Galan (seniors and brothers, but not twins) and Chris Pennington (junior), and defensive back Kunle Williams (senior) made first-team All-Ivy, joining Ryan and senior offensive linemen Jeff Hatch and John Zepeda. Named to the second team were Hoffman, Milanese, senior fullback Adam Keslosky, linebackers Dan Morris (senior) and Steve Lhotak (junior), and senior defensive backs D. L. Bouldrick and Stephen Faulk. Senior offensive lineman Randy Parker and junior defensive back Vince Alexander received honorable mention. 

Ryan broke Brian Keys’ career rushing record (1987-89) in the final game against Cornell and finished with 3,213 yards. Oddly enough, he began his career as a blocking back for Jim Finn W’99 (now with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts), and had just one carry his freshman year.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Ryan said, referring to his early days. “I was playing fullback, and special teams and stuff like that. I was trusting in God that whatever way things were going to work out for me, He was going to do His thing. I couldn’t ask for a better story. I’ve had my ups and downs, but I wouldn’t trade these four years for anything.”

Ryan’s attitude exemplified what head coach Al Bagnoli tried to instill in his players before and after the Cornell game.

“You’d have to go back a really long time to get a composite won-loss record like these guys have had,” Bagnoli said. “They’ve only lost six Ivy League games in four years. We were all disappointed at Harvard, but there’s no shame in playing an unbeaten team at their place in a touchdown game.”

Second-year coach Darren Ambrose’s team of mostly freshmen and sophomores tied for the Ivy women’s soccer title with Dartmouth and Princeton, thanks to a thrilling 1-1 tie on Rhodes Field against the Tigers on November 3 and a 3-1 win over Harvard in Boston November 10. In the Princeton game, freshman Rebecca Weber scored with four minutes left in regulation and sophomore goalie Vanessa Scotto stopped a breakaway with two minutes remaining in overtime. A second-ever NCAA berth resulted in a 2-0 loss to Villanova on November 16.

Freshman Katy Cross, who broke Jill Callaghan’s team single-season scoring record with 34 points (12 goals, 10 assists), was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and was joined on the All-Ivy first team by junior Jen Valentine. Freshman Rachelle Snyder and sophomore Heather Issing (who played the second half of the season with a stress fracture in her foot) made the second team, and Scotto received honorable mention. 

Having a team comprised of nearly 50 percent freshmen “can be a scary thought,” Ambrose said, “but they made the adjustment, they weren’t intimidated, they didn’t feel any pressure. They just love to play. They knew they were going to play, and we didn’t put any extra pressure on them.” 

The volleyball team won its first Ivy League title since 1990 in a playoff against Brown on November 20. Coach Kerry Major’s squad had lost senior Kelly Szczerba to an Achilles injury a week earlier and played tight in losses to Princeton and Brown before rediscovering their joie de jouer in time for the playoff against the Bears. 

“We asked everyone to dig a little deeper, and they responded,” Major said. “This team has the most heart of any that I’ve coached.” 

Penn received its first NCAA tournament bid since 1990, and the Quakers’ season ended in the first round with a 3-0 loss to No. 8-ranked UCLA. Szczerba and sophomore Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan were named first-team All-Ivy, and junior captain Stacy Carter received honorable mention.

Better Chemistry Makes Better Hoops

A year ago, Andy Toole suffered along with those who witnessed the perplexing performances that marked Penn’s 2000-01 basketball campaign: the flashes of brilliance in close losses to nationally-ranked Seton Hall and Maryland; the persistent inaccuracy from the free-throw line that dogged the team all season; and, most pointedly, the eight losses to open the season, five by a total of 16 points. 

Unlike the fans and followers whose hopes rise and fall with the Quakers, however, Toole is in a position to do something about it, and the silky-smooth 6-foot-4 guard, who spent last season practicing with the team after transferring from Elon College, was one of the chief architects of Penn’s 5-1 start, which included wins over Georgia Tech, Iowa State, and Drexel. Last season the Quakers did not win their fifth game until January 24.

“Last year was a learning year,” Toole said after helping to orchestrate an 89-80 win over Drexel on November 28 with 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting and six assists. “I’ve played a long time, and I learned more last year than I ever have. I was able to see the things we needed to work on to be a better team; little things like making the extra pass, finding the open man. That’s what we’ve been doing. There are not a lot of egos on this team.”

Last year’s ignominious start exposed a team that was grievously short on team chemistry and lacked a true leader. Toole, a junior, seems tailor-made for that role, and along with 6-6 sophomore Jeff Schiffner and 6-5 freshman Tim Begley gives Penn a starting backcourt that combines size and quickness with accuracy from the three-point range. The Quakers shot 44 percent (39-for-89) from behind the line through the first six games, and made a school-record 16 three-pointers against Drexel.

“I think we have much more understanding of who we are,” head coach Fran Dunphy said before the season-opening 79-74 win against Georgia Tech. “There are still some unknowns, but we feel really good about who we are as a team, and we feel really good about Andy Toole being a significant element of our program.”

If Toole ends up being the glue that holds this Penn team together, the player who will determine how high the Quakers soar figures to be junior forward Ugonna Onyekwe, the Ivy League rookie of the year two years ago but an enigma last season who was relegated to sixth-man status at times by Dunphy. Onyekwe returned with an improved attitude and a smoother three-point stroke this season and was little short of brilliant in the first five games, scoring 30 points against Georgia Tech, 28 in a loss to No. 2-ranked Illinois, and 22 in a win over Iowa State. Fellow junior Koko Archibong picked up the slack when Onyekwe was stymied and scored 26 points against Eastern Illinois and 22 against American University. 

With a coach’s eye for the dark cloud surrounding the silver lining, Dunphy noted that the Quakers were out-rebounded in each of their first six games, a situation that figured to improve when sophomore center Adam Chubb recovered from a stress fracture in his foot and returned to the lineup in December.

David Porter C’82, author of Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball, takes over the Gazette’s sports column. Our thanks to Noel Hynd C’70 for his work.

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