There will be no resting on past successes for the Penn Quakers in 2004. Gone are 22 letterwinners and 13 starters from the only Division I team that went undefeated in 2003. Gone are the players that went 26-2 in the Ancient Eight, 34-5 overall and won three Ivy League titles over the past four seasons.
This new edition of the Red and Blue will have to write its own place in team history. And if the past is any indicator, nothing will come easily in 2004 as Penn begins its quest to become the first program in 12 years to win three-straight Ivy League crowns.
Still, the Quakers find themselves in an eerily familiar setting to that of 2003 when they entered the campaign looking to become the first Ivy League team in 10 years to win back-to-back championships. However, the deck may not have been as stacked against the 2003 Quakers as it is now.
Head Coach Al Bagnoli and his staff have to replace 13 starters, 11 All-Ivy League honorees and the Ivy League Player of the Year in 2004.
Graduation left holes at quarterback, the offensive line, the secondary, the defensive line, linebacker and special teams.
Those departures left their legacy to the 128th football team at Penn; a 19-game Franklin Field winning streak, a 15-game Ivy League winning streak and a 16-game overall winning streak.
Despite the championship legacy, the 2004 Penn Quakers have not won anything yet. If anything was learned from the past, it is that last season’s success does not automatically give them a title in 2004. So when the Quakers’ season opens in sunny California on Sept. 18 at the University of San Diego, the Red and Blue will have a new canvas in which to paint the landscape of the 2004 season.
Only college sports has a revolving door of players that forces coaches to field a “new” team each season. Graduation can be cruel that way, and for the Quakers that scenario is no more evident than on the offensive side of the ball in 2004. Penn will replace nine starters including the quarterback, its entire starting offensive line and two backups, plus tight end and wide receiver.
All is not lost however, as the offense does return first-team All-Ivy wide receiver Dan Cstles and first-team All-Ivy running back Sam Mathews. The duo became the first running back and receiver in program history to record over 1,000 yards in the same season in 2003.
Difficult Shoes to Fill - For the second time in three years, the Penn offense will be breaking in a new starting signal caller. After a one-year apprenticeship behind Ivy League Player of the Year Mike Mitchell, junior Pat McDermott appears to be the frontrunner for the starting job. He completed 55.6 percent of his passes (20-of-36) and tossed two touchdowns in several relief appearances and one starting nod (when an ankle injury forced Mitchell to miss the Bucknell game) in 2003.
While the Quakers and Bison played a throwback contest with both teams combining for 444 rushing yards and just 266 passing yards, it was a McDermott 20-yard touchdown pass to Mathews that provided Penn its margin of victory in a 14-13 win last season.
Penn’s coaching staff will also look to sophomores Joey Boaen and Jason Cohen for depth on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
The Quakers have had the fortune of starting the top two passers in program history over the last five seasons and only time will tell if McDermott can take a place among those Red and Blue elite.
Hello, My Name Is - It has been a long time since the Quakers’ coaching staff has had to worry about the offensive line (three years to be exact), but not since the 2000 season have there been so many question marks as to who will line up come game day.
Only one of the returning 13 offensive linemen is a letterwinner. And only three of the remaining 12 have game experience. Plus when factoring in that all five starters received All-Ivy accolades last season, the progress of this year’s rebuild could spell the team’s ultimate success in 2004.
The four players that the coaching staff will look to right away are seniors Erik Curtis and Michael Pierce, and junior Greg Williams. Curtis earned a varsity letter and started the season finale last year. After transferring to Penn in 2002, Pierce, a two-time all-league lineman in high school, brings with him two years of collegiate experience into the lineup.
Williams rounds out the “experienced” group. He appeared in games during the Quakers’ 2002 Ivy League title run.
After the above quartet, the remaining four juniors and five sophomores will have every opportunity to prove their worth and earn a spot in the lineup. Whomever is hungriest and has done their homework will have the edge come the season opener.
Helping Hand - Another position on the offensive side of the ball with a starting vacancy is tight end.
Junior Matt Boyer and sophomore Chris Mizell saw playing time a year ago, with Boyer on the receiving end of a two-point conversion on a high extra-point snap at Harvard. Both players will see reps during preseason camp to determine who secures the starting job.
An Embarassment of Riches - There are multiple positions on the offensive side of the ball with openings. One area the coaching staff will not have to worry about is running back, as Penn returns five letterwinners including All-Ivy selection Mathews.
Mathews became the Quakers’ workhorse in 2003, carrying the ball 276 times for 1,266 yards (fourth all-time in program history) and 10 touchdowns, losing only 29 total yards in nearly 300 touches. Mathews was also dangerous past the line of scrimmage, bringing down 40 passes for 311 yards (third on team) and three touchdowns.
Although the Quakers return five starters to its backfield, questions will still need to be answered as to who will back up Mathews. Last season the Red and Blue sent out Jake Perskie or senior Michael Recchiuti. Perskie graduated and Recchiuti rushed for 221 yards and a touchdown in 2003. Over two seasons, Recchuiti has rushed for over 560 yards on 122 carries.
Junior Kyle Ambrogi will also make an argument for playing time, especially after his performance in the season finale against Cornell, where he rushed for 74 yards and a four-yard touchdown on four carries.
Also look for sophomore-transfer Von Bryant (Duke) to give the Quakers even more options out of the backfield in 2004.
Steady - Senior Kevin DeSmedt rounds out the starting backfield. He started the last six games and helped keep open the holes that the offensive line had created for Mathews in 2003. Not just a blocker, DeSmedt was used in short-yardage situations and converted possibly the biggest fourth-and-1 in his career in week two at No. 19 Lehigh. With a new set of downs, Penn scored the first of 21-straight points en route to a 31-24 victory.
Junior Ryan Kwiecinski also returns and brings with him a season’s worth of experience working with DeSmedt.
Catch This - The Quakers may be deeper at wide receiver than at running back. Nine of Penn’s returning 13 wideouts have game experience, with seven of them having caught at least one collegiate pass and five of those hauling in touchdowns.
Castles is the cream of the crop and headlines an experienced and savvy group. Castles entered 2003 with the unenviable task of following the Quakers’ all-time leader at wide receiver, Rob Milanese. All Castles did was lead the Ivy League in yards, become the second player in program history to catch 1,000 yards and tie Penn’s single-season receiving touchdown record of 13. If it seems all Castles does is catch touchdowns, it is because the senior has pulled down 19 of them in his career (third all-time at Penn).
Seniors Jonathan Robinson, Gabe Marabella and Matt Makovsky should all vie for the final starting job. When healthy, Robinson has proved to be an explosive receiver, having caught 27 passes for 175 yards over his Penn career. Marabella has been consistent, pulling down any pass that comes his way. Last season the converted quarterback caught seven passes for one touchdown and a career-high 118 yards. Makovsky is no slouch either, with six receptions for 115 yards to his credit.
Three more letterwinners return as well as juniors Kevin Barr, Sagar Patel and Nick Okoro will look to challenge the seniors for more reps. Barr pulled down five passes for 41 yards and a touchdown last season, while Patel played his way into the lineup after a clutch touchdown reception in week two against No. 19 Lehigh. Patel finished the season with three receptions for 37 yards.
With seven returning lettermen, one might think that the Quakers’ wide receiver corp has no openings. However that would be a mistake. With the return of a healthy Ryan Pissari and Nate Weber, both juniors, along with steadily improving sophomores Dan McDonald, Billy May, Matt Carre and Joe Watkins - no one’s name is written in stone for the Red and Blue on the wings.
Despite the graduation of key personnel, the defense enters the season with less uncertainty than its offensive counterparts. During the Quakers’ back-to-back title runs, Penn has been the standard for defense in the Ivy League. Two years ago, the Red and Blue literally rewrote the Ancient Eight record books and allowed a measly 13.2 ppg and a new Ivy-record 43.6 rushing yards in League games. Last season, injuries forced many new faces into the lineup. All this “no-name” defense did was make a name for itself, leading the Ivy League again in scoring defense (16.4 ppg), total defense (326.1 ypg) and rushing defense (92.9 ypg).
While the Quakers did graduate three first-team All-Ivy performers, including its heart and soul in unanimous selection Steve Lhotak, Penn returns five All-Ivy selections including senior corner Duvol Thompson and senior linebacker Ric San Doval.
A Hole in the Lineup - It is difficult for a team to recover from losing a big-time player such as three-time All-Ivy linebacker Lhotak. Fortunately, there are two more All-Ivy players waiting in the wings. Seniors San Doval (first-team) and Luke Hadden (honorable mention) joined Lhotak as All-Ivy picks in 2003.
San Doval started all 10 games last season after moving back to linebacker (he spent 2002 as a defensive end where he received honorable mention for All-Ivy) where he was a force, recording career highs in tackles (86), tackles for a loss (9.5) and sacks (4.5). He led the Quakers with double-digit stops twice, including a career-best 14-tackle effort at Harvard in the game that clinched Penn’s second-straight outright banner.
Hadden started six games last season, recording career highs in tackles (36), solo stops (17), interceptions (three), forced fumbles (two) and sacks (1.5).
Juniors Chad Slapnicka and Al Wawszczyk will be looked upon to step up after seeing time in the lineup last season. Both players will have the opportunity to expand on their roles from last season.
Juniors Alex Finston and Joe Albarelli and sophomores Blake Gillman, Mark Herman and J.T. Laws round out the linebacker corp.
None Shall Pass - The Penn secondary is by far the Quakers deepest position entering the 2004 campaign. The Red and Blue return a pair of All-Ivy selections in seniors Thompson and Bryan Arguello (second-team) along with nine letterwinners. Also rejoining the squad in 2004 is senior Seth Fisher and juniors Casey Edgar, Michael Johns and Doug Middleton, not to mention team tri-captain Kevin Stefanski and Scott Williams.
Last season’s group picked off 19 passes, and this year’s squad enters the season with 23 career interceptions.
Thompson had another stellar season in 2003 en route to his first career All-Ivy berth. He compiled 43 tackles last season, plus led Penn with seven pass breakups while also picking off another.
What Castles is to the offense in catching touchdown passes, Arguello is to the defense is recovering turnovers. The senior registered a career-high four interceptions while also picking up a career-high three fumbles. In between turnovers, Arguello recorded a career-high 45 tackles to finish third on the squad.
Fisher’s 36 tackles more than doubled his previous best, while his two interceptions were also a career high. Edgar went from appearing in seven games and recording five tackles as a freshman to becoming an intergal member of the secondary, recording a career-high 36 tackles, one interception and a fumble recovery. In addition, Edgar pulled double-duty on special teams where he blocked a Yale field-goal attempt in overtime in week six as well as a Brown punt in week seven.
Middleton and Johns also kicked up their play a notch, as Middleton went from three tackles as a rookie to 30, with an interception, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble in 2003. Meanwhile, an injury may have slowed Johns down, but he still posted a career-high 10 solo tackles.
Stefanski missed all but the final two games of the 2003 season with his second ACL injury. He has recorded 54 career tackles and four interceptions. Williams has been out of the lineup since going on a two-year mission to South America after a phenomenal rookie campaign in 2001.
After the above eight, look for juniors Victor Davanzo, Adam Francks and Brad Martinez to also find their way into the lineup. The trio combined for 40 tackles last season.
Hold The Line - The defensive line is another area for the Red and Blue that shows injuries in 2003 should pave the way for a smooth transition in 2004. Gone is two-time All-Ivy guard Ryan Strahlendorff. Returning is senior second-team All-Ivy selection Michael Sangobowale. Also returning to the front line will be seniors Greg Jones and Steve Small. A season-ending injury to Small opened the door for Jones last season. With Small healthy, another dominant year by the Red and Blue’s first line of defense could be on the horizon.
Sangobowale was the man on the line last season, recording a career-high 38 tackles, seven tackles for a loss (29 yards), 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. He also led all Quakers linemen in tackles. Jones appeared in all but one game while Small was limited to just the first six.
Two returning sophomores also saw playing time as rookies, Mike Meridith and J.J. Stanton. Both will be given the opportunity to make more of an impact in 2004 as the Quakers attempt to lead the Ivy League for a fourth-straight year.
Added Support - Penn’s defensive line should be bolstered by the return of its entire defensive end lineup. Both starters and key reserves are back as seniors Bobby Fallon, Kevin Junge and Blake Bourne will be ready to help their linemates out as well as compete with the rest of the defense for tackles.
All three returning senior lettermen appeared in all 10 games and recorded career highs in tackles. The trio also accounted for four fumble recoveries on a ball-hungry defense.
After this returning group, the question is who will be ready to step up and play this season. The candidates include juniors Joe Albarelli and Jim Malizia and sophomores Brandon Harris, Adam Licari, Cole Luby and Matt Weyandt.
Penn’s special teams were “special” in 2003 and included a blocked field goal in overtime and a gamewinning overtime field goal (both against Yale) as well as a two-point conversion off a bad snap. The special teamers also won the battle for field position and forced a few turnovers, which the offense quickly took advantage.
Senior Josh Appell returns as the Quakers’ punter. He is two years removed from an All-Ivy sophomore campaign, but still had strong numbers last season, placing Penn fourth in the Ivy League in punting with 36.2 yards per punt.
Penn will have to replace two-time All-Ivy kicker Peter Veldman who was among the Ancient Eight’s scoring and field goal leaders over the past two seasons.
Senior Evan Nolan received an early audition for the job in the 2003 finale against Cornell, hitting all four extra-point attempts and kicking off three times. He also booted 13 point afters and a 41-yard field goal for the Penn sprint football team.
Sophomores Peter Stine and James McCarrie will also get a look as well. McCarrie saw some spot duty with the Penn sprint football team in 2003, going 2-for-2 on extra points.
The Quakers welcome back all but one returnman as well as both holder and long snapper. Gone from punt returns is Joe Phillips, but returning is Francks, who brought back 27 punts for an average of 7.9 yards. On kickoff returns, Thompson looked as if he would break one open any game, averaging 31.4 yards on just five returns. Robinson returned 15 kickoffs for 20.8 yards.
Marabella proved to be a steadying influence as holder, even converting a two-point play on a high extra-point snap in a close game against Harvard.
The Challenge - Two new teams appear on the schedule in 2004 as Penn makes its first trip to the West Coast in 50 years when it opens the campaign at the University of San Diego on Sept. 18. One week later, the Quakers’ 19-game Franklin Field winning streak will be put to the test when Villanova comes calling on Sept. 25. Bucknell will round out the non-conference slate on Oct. 9 in Lewisburg, Pa.
Returning 38 letterwinners, 12 starters and eight All-Ivy players will once again make the two-time defending Ivy League champions a force to be reckoned with in 2004. The Quakers will attempt to become the first Ancient Eight team in 12 years to win three-straight league crowns. However, Penn’s four Ivy banners over the past six years will mean nothing come week one, when the Red and Blue will have to earn it all over again.
Written by Rich Schepis