Stirrings of a Lacrosse Dynasty

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By David Porter

It’s the rare athletic feat that sends sports-information directors digging through their musty record books to see if anything so momentous has been accomplished before (they usually are able to recite volumes of facts from memory, you see). So it was when Penn’s women’s lacrosse team befuddled Brown 19-7 on Franklin Field on April 25 to complete another undefeated Ivy League lacrosse season, their fourth consecutive unblemished spring in the Ancient Eight.

Certainly the transformation of the Quakers into one of the elite lacrosse teams in the nation under coach Karin Brower Corbett would not have suffered for a loss here or there, but the senior class of 2010 departed with a spotless 28-0 conference record that left no room for debate. No Penn team in recent memory can claim such extended dominance.

These are the glory days for Brower Corbett, who arrived at Penn 11 years ago when it was a program that perennially played second fiddle (or third or fourth, more accurately) to Princeton and Dartmouth. The progression was slow and steady at first, then took off with a breakout season in 2007 in which the Quakers blazed into the NCAA semifinals at Franklin Field before being humbled by top-seeded Northwestern. 

The next three years proved that Penn is no flash in the pan. Three more NCAA appearances, two more Final Fours, a berth in the championship game, a regular-season win against once-unbeatable Northwestern, the emergence of Ali DeLuca C’10 as a finalist for the Tewaaraton Award as the nation’s top player: all have stamped Penn as a program to be reckoned with and, more importantly, a destination for blue-chip high school players who might previously have gone elsewhere.

But back to the streak. It got to the point this spring that Brower Corbett felt she had to remind the players about the big-picture stuff, like improving each and every game, working toward long-term goals, and savoring the experience.

“This year I think they felt they had to win, and I told them that it’s about the journey and that they should enjoy the journey,” she said. “I wanted to take off some of the pressure.”

“I remember that meeting Karin had with us,” DeLuca said. “It was basically, ‘Win or lose, you guys are going to have those memories together.’ Sometimes I would take a deep breath and say to myself, ‘Get out there and have fun.’ But you can’t help it, you want to win. I would tell myself to chill, but once you get in a game, you go back to your same tendencies.”

Those tendencies carried the Quakers, who gained the hard-won experience of playing in close games and being behind by a goal or two in the waning minutes but never panicking or losing focus. To hear Brower Corbett tell it, the culture shift began in earnest with a 2006 team that finished 4-3 —the third such finish in a row—and failed to make the NCAA tournament but nevertheless laid the groundwork for the successes to follow. 

“They did a great job of making lacrosse a real priority,” Brower Corbett said. “We had the ability, but we had to learn how to win. And they made sure that each class got to know each other.”  

That blurring of class lines was one of the coach’s signature strategies, and it was something DeLuca noticed when she arrived on campus the following fall. She’d played at New Jersey’s Hillsborough High, not a traditional lacrosse power but one that was coached by alumna Laurie Stagnitta C’85, who suggested Brower Corbett come take a look. The Penn coach was bowled over by DeLuca’s athleticism and instincts, and discovered a player who wouldn’t rest on her laurels but would continue to hone her game. Four years later, DeLuca leaves as the program’s all-time leading goal scorer, a three-time first-team All-Ivy selection, and a 2010 first-team All-American. 

She sounded at least as proud of the stamp she and her teammates have left on the Penn program.

“We’ve done so well as a team, and the mentality we’ve instilled is something that’s going to carry through,” DeLuca said. “If the team gets a national championship in two or three years, it will feel like I had some part in shaping that.”

Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Tom Grandieri C’10 never had to go too far to find a hotly contested pickup baseball or basketball game. Sibling competitiveness took care of that, particularly when the older siblings included future hoops standouts Chris (Gettysburg College), Fran (Widener University) and Brian C’08. 

As in most sibling rivalries, gamesmanship usually dictated that the older brother came out on top.

“I was a pretty big guy when I was young, but he had a height advantage,” Tom said of Brian, who went on to play on two Ivy League championship teams for the Quakers in 2006 and 2007. “I could handle myself, but the game would usually stop before I had a chance to win.”

The early tests served him well, though despite a passion for basketball he gravitated to baseball. He finished his Penn career this spring as the Ivy League’s player of the year, the first Quaker to win the award since Andrew McCreery C’03 in 2003. Grandieri led Penn in hits (71), RBI (46), doubles (22), steals (9), and slugging percentage (.652) while hitting for a .399 average. The 71 hits are tied for the fourth most in Ivy League history for a single season.

His next challenge involved waiting to see if his name would be called during the Major League Baseball Draft in early June.

Grandieri’s hopes were bolstered by a three-hour tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies, along with a group of other prospects. “I felt like I stacked up against them pretty well,” he said. “My arm held up well, and I think I showed myself pretty well in the batting cages.”

Alas, he wasn’t selected. A few days before the draft ended, Grandieri was trying to take a philosophical approach to the prospect of life after baseball.

“I’d be pretty much open to anything,” he said. “It wouldn’t totally ruin the balance of my life right now. I guess I’d have to take on the real world.”

Dave Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.

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