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Back to Back?

The football team looks to repeat as Ivy champions. By Noel Hynd

 

As the Quakers prepare for the program’s 125th season, they enter the 2001 campaign as the defending Ivy League champions for the fourth time in the last eight seasons, and 10th in the last 20 years … So Penn defends the title half the time.
    What seems to happen all the time—and my stats are less official here—is that the championship crown is earned on the final Saturday of the season. This year that would be against our Big Red friends at Franklin Field. Dress warm. While the other seven schools in the Ivy League make plans to try to dethrone Pennsylvania, here’s a sample of what Penn fans will have to look forward to.
    The Quakers will return 18 starters, nine on offense and nine on defense, and 41 lettermen from last season’s 7-3 squad (6-1 Ivy). Included will be the 2000 Ivy League Player of the Year senior quarterback Gavin Hoffman, two-time All Ivy senior running back Kris Ryan, and second-team All Ivy wide receiver senior Rob Milanese.
    Hoffman is the first player since 1997 to return as the Ivy League’s reigning Player of the Year. The sixth Quaker to win the Asa A. Bushnell Cup, he turned in a spectacular season in 2000, becoming Penn’s all-time leader in passing yards (5,542), shattering the previous record of 3,954 yards set by Jimmy McGeehan C’94.
    While Hoffman was pacing the Quakers’ air attack last year, the ground game was forced to cope without tailback Ryan. After racking up 1,197 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in his breakout sophomore campaign, Ryan was limited to just 129 carries in 2000 due to two separate injuries. Yet he still managed 683 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
    In addition to having a healthy—we hope—Ryan in the backfield this year, Hoffman will also have his favorite target back from last season in Milanese. Milanese finished fifth in I-AA with 7.6 receptions per game, and set a new Quakers’ single-game mark with 13 receptions in Penn’s season opener at Lehigh on Sept. 16. His six receiving touchdowns placed him second on the team.
    At tight end, Hoffman will have to look for a new target this year. Junior Matt Michaleski looks to have a leg up for the job, after a solid 2000 campaign.
    Starting last year, one “set” area was the running game with Ryan in the backfield—right up until injuries in the pre-season took him out of the equation. The bulk of the work then went to graduating-senior Mike Verille and junior Todd Okolovitch. Both filled in admirably. Verille finished second on the team with 483 yards and six touchdowns. Okolovitch posted career highs with 57 carries for 233 yards and two touchdowns. Starting fullback Adam Keslosky returns after being named the Quakers’ Most Improved Offensive Player last season.
    Think these guys will have some protection? I do. The offensive line began last season as the team’s biggest question mark. By season’s end, the line garnered two all-Ivy nods. Returning are all five starting offensive linemen: seniors Jeff Hatch, Randy Parker, Sam Gottesman, and John Zepeda, and junior Matt Dukes, a second-team All-Ivy selection and winner of the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the team’s top offensive lineman.
    There will probably be moments when Penn doesn’t have the ball. For these unhappy interludes, first-team All-Ivy selections Ed and John Galan return for their senior seasons to terrify opposing quarterbacks and anchor the defensive line. Meanwhile, the deepest Ivy linebacker corps returns second-team All-Ivy junior and team defensive MVP Travis Belden, along with senior Dan Morris and junior Chris Pennington.
    The Quaker secondary lost something with the graduation of all-league defensive backs Joey Alofaituli C’00 and Hasani White C’01. The two returning starters are seniors Steve Faulk and Kunle Williams, at corner and safety, respectively. While Faulk made a name for himself on special teams last season, he also accomplished several missions on defense, recording 35 tackles and five pass breakups. Williams also had a strong season, recording a career-high 29 tackles and picking off two passes.
    Junior Fred Plaza appears to have the inside track at the second corner opening, after recording 28 tackles in 2000. Junior Eric Richardson and sophomore Patrick McManus will compete for the backup slot. Meanwhile, at safety, the competition should be fierce, as senior D.L. Bouldrick, junior Vince Alexander, and sophomore Kevin Stefanski all vie for the final starting job.
    On special teams, the Ivy League’s all-time scoring leader as a kicker, Jason Feinberg C’01, was also lost to graduation. Feinberg accounted for a team-high 83 points last season, 27 percent of the team’s offense. Junior Roman Galas, who handled the team’s kickoff duties last season, will compete with junior Alex Bush and sophomore Peter Veldman to succeed Feinberg.
    Punt-return duties will fall to sophomore Joe Phillips, Plaza, and senior Colin Smith. Phillips established himself last year as one of Division I-AA’s top return men. In the unlikely event that anyone scores against Penn, Faulk and Williams will get the nod on kickoff returns.
    Senior Ryan Lazzeri returns for his fourth-straight season as starting punter. And last but not least, Junior John Westhoff will again handle the short-snapper duties for the Quakers, while senior Loui Georgalas will get the long-snap calls.
    Penn’s football team was predicted to win its 12th Ivy Crown in a preseason poll of reporters who cover ivy schools and also ranks high in two I-AA college football polls, thanks to all the preceding young men and Coach Al Bagnoli, who somehow brings it all together year after year. Street & Smith’s 2001 college football preview predicts that the Quakers will repeat as Ivy League champions, and The Sports Network’s Tony Moss has tabbed the Red and Blue 18th in his unofficial preseason poll.
    All that, of course, is before a single game is played, and being the defending champ is like wearing a target every week. The last time Penn repeated was 1993-94. It’s difficult enough to win once. Back-to-back again?
    Well, why not?
    Ivy road games this year are at Hanover, New York, Providence, and Cambridge. This should be a very good team. I ask the same question every year: Can you think of a better way to spend a Saturday in the fall?

Noel Hynd C’70 writes on sports for the Gazette.


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