What a weekend.
From overtime heroics to last-second goals to penalty shootouts to routs of Princeton, these past couple of days simply had everything you can ask for if you’re a Penn sports fan. And best of all, it all came at home.
If you missed any of it, here’s a recap of Penn’s remarkable 5-0-1 record over the weekend, and what it means going forward as the fall season begins to wind down.
Despite record-breaking quarterback Billy Ragone being sidelined with a foot injury, the Quakers remained perfect in the Ivy League with a 28-17 win over Yale on Saturday at Franklin Field. Fifth-year senior Ryan Becker, who usually platoons with Ragone, completed 77 percent of his passes and threw for two touchdowns in the win, Penn’s seventh straight against Ivy competition. Running back Kyle Wilcox contributed 158 total yards and receiver Conner Scott caught a TD while eclipsing 1,000 career receiving yards.
In one of the most dramatic games of the weekend, the Quakers beat Yale in overtime, 3-2, on the strength of a 94th-minute goal from senior Stephen Baker, who also assisted on Penn’s first two goals Saturday night at Rhodes Field. Goalkeeper Tyler Kinn allowed Penn to get to OT with a huge save in the final seconds of regulation. With a 3-0-1 record in the league, Penn now sits all alone in first place in the Ivies.
It was the only game of the weekend that didn’t end in a Penn win – but it still produced one of the most thrilling moments. With time winding down and the Quakers about to drop a 1-0 decision to Yale on Saturday at Rhodes Field, Penn was awarded a penalty kick. And senior Kerry Scalora delivered, scoring the PK goal to tie the game at 1-1, which is how the score would remain through overtime. With a 3-1-1 Ivy record, the Quakers are tied for second place with Brown, behind only unbeaten Harvard.
The new stadium continues to pay big dividends for the Quakers, who improved to 3-1-1 in the Ivy League and a whopping 10-1-4 overall with a 1-0 win over Yale in penalty strokes Saturday at Ellen Vagelos Field. Goalie Carly Sokach finished with 15 saves, tying a career-high, and led the way in what was the program’s first penalty stroke shootout since 2002. Penn currently sits just one game behind defending national champion Princeton, who they play, at home, in the regular-season finale on Nov. 9.
This one didn’t have the same kind of last-second heroics as some of the other games but the Friday night sweep of Princeton was just as satisfying. Alex Caldwell had 24 assists and four different Quakers had eight kills as Penn beat its rival, 25-19, 25-22, 25-20, at the Palestra on Friday night to even its Ivy League record at 4-4.
Speaking of handily beating Princeton, Penn’s sprint football team hammered the Tigers, 72-29, under the lights of Franklin Field on Friday night, improving to 3-3 in the Collegiate Sprint Football League. The 72 points scored were the most in a single game since Penn put up 70 on Princeton in 2010. Quarterback Mike McCurdy led the way with 352 passing yards – the fourth most in Penn history – and four touchdowns.
Antonio Merlo lived in Italy for most of his life and now teaches economics at Penn. Since 2008, he’s coached Penn’s men’s water polo team, but being that it’s a club team in an underpublicized sport, he’s mostly removed from the spotlight of the Penn-Princeton rivalry.
Still, when asked if he knows about the history of the famous rivalry, his inflection changes and he responds emphatically with just one word: “Absolutely!”
And now the one-time professional water polo player from Italy is ready to beat Princeton at this weekend’s Ivy championships at Penn – even though the Tigers come to Philly with a nationally ranked varsity water polo program.
“It would be very sweet to show them a good game,” Merlo said. “There’s always a chance. The ball is round. Something can always happen.”
According to Merlo, no other competition in the country features club teams competing against varsity programs, meaning that if Penn can beat Princeton, it would make for one of the most unlikely results in the long-standing rivalry between the two nearby schools – across any sport. The same can be said if the Quakers manage to finish higher than the two other varsity teams from Ivy League institutions: Harvard and Brown.
But even though Penn is limited in the way all club teams are (not being able to recruit, a lighter practice schedule, generally worse facilities, etc.), Merlo believes his team can hoist a championship trophy in what will be the fourth annual Ivy championships.
The Quakers certainly are a powerhouse at the club level, where they’ve won seven Mid-Atlantic Division titles and are currently 9-0 on the season. In their last two trips to national club championships of the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), they finished in 10th place – “which is remarkable for an East Coast program,” Merlo said.
This season Penn hops to finish in the top four nationally, which would be an even greater feat. But before the division championship and national tournament, the Quakers are excited to host the Ivy Championship at home at Sheerr Pool, where they expect between 200 and 300 fans.
“Our pool is narrower than usual and one of the two ends is shallow,” Merlo said. “We hope the pool is going to play to our advantage.”
The tournament is constructed so that the club teams first compete on Saturday, with Penn playing Cornell and then probably Dartmouth, which won the Ivy club title last season. The winner of the club competition then moves into a semifinal game Sunday against top-seeded Princeton, while the other two varsity teams – Brown and Harvard – play in the other semifinal contest. The winner of both of those games then play for the overall championship, while the losing squads match up in the third-place game.
If the Quakers do make it to Sunday, it won’t be the first time they’ve competed against varsity teams. In September, they were invited to Princeton Invitational and held their own, losing to the host Tigers by just three goals.
So winning the whole thing is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
“It would be unbelievable,” Merlo said. “The odds are not that high but we are going to give it our best.”
At the very least, the tournament at Penn should help give more exposure to Penn’s water polo programs. (The women also have a very good team that I reported on three years ago.) But even though many high schools and colleges are playing the sport, especially in Pennsylvania, Merlo (pictured at left) knows it’s an uphill battle to get more recognition. And it will certainly never get as popular as it is in Italy, where Merlo said water polo stadiums dot the entire country.
“Just to give you an idea, when Italy makes it to the final for Olympic gold in water polo, the whole country stops,” he said. “It’s like the same thing as watching the soccer World Cup.”
But even after leaving Italy to get his PhD in economics from New York University in 1988, Merlo has tried his best to stay involved in water polo, which he calls “one of the hardest sports” because of how much you have to swim and tread water. He was an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota and NYU, and then trained with the Quakers after getting hired by Penn in 2000.
In 2008, when Penn’s coach left, the players asked Merlo to take over. He agreed under one condition: because of his busy schedule as the Lawrence R. Klein Professor of Economics and director of the Penn institute for Economic Research, he could only do it for season.
But he hasn’t been able to walk away since then – both because of his love of the sport and the upward trajectory of Penn’s ever-growing team. And, of course, the chance to add another chapter to the Penn-Princeton rivalry.
“The team keeps telling me how happy they are when I coach them,” he said. “I must say it’s a rewarding experience, especially when I see the commitment these kids have. The fact that they’re willing to put so much into the team and the effort they show makes me want to do the same.”
Earlier this week, I interviewed Penn basketball coach Jerome Allen for a story in the next issue of the Gazette. The best part about the chat? It took place in Allen’s brand new office overlooking a brand new basketball court at the recently renovated Hutchinson Gymnasium.
The John R. Rockwell Court is part of several upgrades to the creaky old gym. Others include a new fencing room, as well as improvements to the school’s golf, gymnastics and rowing training facilities.
For Allen, whose old office was in a cramped space at the Dunning Coaches’ Center and whose team’s practice court was in a stuffy upstairs gym at Weightman Hall, the major upgrades mean a lot.
“In order to be successful as a program, commitment has to come from the top,” he said. “And I think this building kind of is like a statement that they really care about basketball at Penn. It’s beautiful. I thank every person that donated a penny to make this happen for us. And I’m quite sure the guys will get a lot of use out of it.”
Some parts of Hutch Gym are still under construction but I snapped a few photos of the renovations, which I’ll share below.
Last year at this time, Penn men’s soccer coach Rudy Fuller was preparing for big things. The Quakers were coming off a solid 8-7-2 campaign in 2011, which followed a fantastic 2010 season when Penn won a thrilling home game in the NCAA tournament. And all signs pointed to the Quakers continuing to grow into a powerhouse in 2012.
But Fuller’s program took a big step backwards last year, finishing with a very disappointing 3-13 record. For Fuller, it stung then … and it still stings today, even as Penn prepares to kick off a new season with a game against Stony Brook tonight at Penn Park.
“Last season was very tough,” Fuller said in an interview with the Gazette. “It was very unexpected. You go into a season expecting to challenge for trophies and it goes the complete opposite.”
At the very least, Fuller can pinpoint the problems. The combination of a handful of season-ending injuries with only a couple of seniors on the roster led to an inexperienced team losing nine one-goal games.
But if there was any silver lining, it was this: the juniors that were thrust into leadership roles before they were ready last season now make up the backbone of a suddenly far more seasoned squad.
“The juniors, now seniors, were fantastic last spring in terms of setting a tone and holding the group to certain standards,” Fuller said. “Now we feel really good in two areas: our depth and our leadership.”
Which Penn players can we expect big things from in ’13?
Well, there’s senior Stephen Baker, who’s scored 19 goals in his first three seasons and who Fuller says has been “an influential guy since he stepped foot on campus.” There’s junior Duke Lacroix, who’s also proven to be a dynamic scorer and is a player that Fuller thinks has a big future in front of him. (“He’s very determined to be a pro and it shows in his approach and in his development over his first couple of years,” the Penn coach said.) And there’s senior Jonny Dolezal, a returning captain and a stalwart of the backline. Fuller also pointed to midfielders Lou Schott and Austin Kinn as key players.
“I think we’re pleased with where we are right now,” Fuller said. “I like our returning group a lot.”
Those returning players will certainly be challenged with a daunting schedule that includes a visit from 2012 national finalist Georgetown on Sept. 19. And even though there’s been a lot of turnover in the league, the Ivy schedule will be challenging as always.
But for Fuller, that’s all part of his plan.
“We put together a schedule two or three years in advance and we put this schedule together for this team,” Fuller said. “There was definitely a major hiccup last fall that was unexpected. We expected to have a very good year last year and challenge for the Ivy title. That didn’t happen. But we put together a harder schedule based on the personnel we knew were going to have in our junior and senior class.”
Can the upperclassmen lead Penn to some big wins over national powers? Can the Quakers challenge for an Ivy title and return to the NCAA tournament? Will they show that last season was nothing more than a blip?
Fuller is certainly optimistic.
“Last years shows you how fine the line is between success and failure,” the Penn coach said. “It’s a big incentive for our guys to rebound from that season and turn one-goal results in our favor. And I think we have a very determined group right now.”
Like most athletes, Penn senior basketball player Alyssa Baron loves the Olympics.
The tradition. The pageantry. The competition. Everything.
So when she walked around a huge stadium with other athletes from across the world last month, she got chills. She understands, of course, that the opening ceremonies for the Maccabiah Games – an international athletic competition in Israel for Jewish athletes – don’t have the same kind of wide appeal and prestige of the Olympics. But, at least for a little while, she still felt like an Olympian.
“It totally felt like the Olympics,” Baron said. “Playing a part in something really similar is amazing.”
Even better: she brought home a gold medal.
Averaging a very impressive 14.6 points per game, Baron led the USA women’s basketball team to the Maccabiah title, capped by a 72-56 win over Israel in the gold-medal game.
“It was definitely one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “Traveling to Israel, being in another country and being able to play basketball there – it was amazing.”
Baron had been to Israel once before with her family but enjoyed going back, this time with people her own age and even some fellow Penn students. Among the Penn athletes Baron saw while in Israel were former basketball teammate Jackie Kates, softball players Elysse Gorney and Sydney Turchin, swimmer Alex Alias and soccer goalie Max Kurtzman.
“The more to represent our school, the better,” she said.
But nobody performed better at the Maccabiah Games than Baron, who showcased the same basketball skills that’s made her one of the premier players in the Ivy League. Now, as her senior season approaches, the high-scoring guard hopes winning a gold medal in an international competition (where the rules and style of play are different) can help her win another title back home.
“I need an Ivy League championship ring to go with the gold medal,” she said.
Below you’ll find some photos from Baron’s stay in Israel, which she was kind enough to share.
It’s been no secret that Penn hasn’t had a great baseball team for while. The Quakers haven’t won the Ivy League since 1995 and have played .500 baseball or worse for most of the last two decades. That’s why, after eight years at the helm, John Cole was let go as the program’s head coach and his longtime assistant John Yurkow was hired to replace him last month. Recently, I sat down with Yurkow in his office to discuss what needs to happen for the Quakers to start winning championships again, his style as a coach, and what it means for him to have his first head coaching job.
What was your first order of business after taking over as head coach?
The first thing I did is I reached out to everybody on our team. The second thing was to get in touch immediately with the incoming class. I talked to some of the key alumni and have been trying to get the staff finalized. Then, I’m really just trying to keep all of the recruiting going. Coach [Mike] Santello and I, for two months, were in a holding pattern. We were out watching players and evaluating but there was only so much we could do. And then finally when we got the word, it was like, ‘All right, let’s go.’
What was the reaction from the players on the team?
They were generally excited. Unless they were just lying to my face, they seemed pretty excited about it. I’m pretty close with all of those guys. I recruited them all. So I think maybe they’re a little relieved to know they know who’s going to be taking the program over.
It was a national coaching search, so what was your mentality throughout the whole process? Did you think you had a pretty good chance throughout?
Early on, I was unsure. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I stayed on, I kept recruiting and I kept trying to run the normal day-to-day operations that a head coach would run. It was definitely something that was hanging over your head because you’re just not sure. The longer it went, the better I felt about it. I went through the interview process just like everyone else did, even though I was internal. And things just worked out. It’s kind of interesting how it all fell into place.
Is it an easier transition because you know the team so well?
Absolutely. I’m internal and I know everything about this place, so I know how to navigate through everything, which is a huge advantage. I know the players. I know what we have coming back. I can’t even imagine when you go and get a job at another school, you’ve got to move your family and your life gets turned upside down. It’s interesting here because last year we finished a game above .500 and we had three seniors. And we have an excellent freshman class coming in. Usually when you take over a program, it could be a mess. That’s not the case here. Things are set up, so I’m fortunate. It’s a unique situation.
What was your reaction when John Cole was let go?
I was surprised. I didn’t really see it coming. I was actually on the road in Chicago when it happened, so it was tough to deal with.
How do you think you’ll be different than him as a head coach?
I don’t know if I’ll be different than him but I think I have my own style. My personality is not going to be the same. I’ve got some ideas. As an assistant coach for 13, 14 years, you start making all these little lists of things you’d like to do when you have the chance to become a head coach. So I’ve got some things I want to implement. There definitely will be a lot of changes, without a doubt.
What kind of changes? What kind of style will you preach?
We’re going to be very aggressive in all phases of the game. That’s what I believe in. That’s how I was coached when I was younger. I don’t want to complicate the game for our guys. I want to keep it simple, so they can play free and easy and aggressive. You can’t overthink baseball. We have to create a mindset where if you do have a bad at bat or you do have a bad inning, you move past it and you’re on to the next thing. That’s what successful baseball players do.
What kind of head coach do you think you’ll be in terms of your personality in the dugout?
I don’t think I’ll be ultra laid back and at the same time I don’t think I’ll be screaming at the top of my lungs. I’m definitely intense. Winning’s important and that’s why I thought this was a great situation. I want to win Ivy League championships. That’s what I’m here to do.
You mentioned winning championships. What are your big goals, both for this season and long term?
I expect us to compete for the Ivy championship this year. I want to make this a place that great student-athletes see and they want to come and matriculate here – because they know when they come here they’re going to great a baseball experience and obviously they’re going to receive a great education. Success, as that happens, I’m hoping will enable us to bring in higher-caliber players that maybe three, four years ago we would have had trouble bringing in. And I think the facilities are starting to help with that. Our field is a solid facility but in the past three years they put in a $27 million weight room, they put in Penn Park – which is our indoor facility when they put in the bubble – and we spent $80,000 just to renovate our locker room five months ago. So for an 18-year told to come in and see all of that, it shows the administration is really making an attempt to bring our facilities to a national level. It’s great.
From what you’ve seen, what’s prevented Penn from being a dominant program in the Ivy League?
That’s a good question because if you look at the breakdown of our schedule from last year we played better against scholarship programs than we did against teams in our league. That’s kind of a head-scratcher. I have some theories as to why and I’m already starting to think how I’m going to change those things, without getting too far into it. But yeah, that’s interesting. And our road record was better than our home record. We need to go in and switch some things and change that mindset a little bit. But that’s why I think we’re not very far away. That’s one of the nice things about this. You can get excited when you think you’ve got all these guys got back, you’ve got a real good incoming class, and the facilities are great. And I just put together a really good coaching staff.
Can Penn become a national power?
I don’t see why not. If you’re going to shoot for the stars, let’s go for it. I think things are really moving in the right direction. I think timing is everything and the timing is right here. I’m very, very fortunate to come into this situation with the players that we have here and where everything is starting to fall with the University.
So this is a pretty good job for you right now?
It’s awesome. I’m still floating right now. This is a great place to work. It’s a great University, a great administration and great kids. You always think about where is your first head coaching job going to be – and I don’t think I could have picked a better spot.