By David Porter | One would be on fairly secure footing saying that this years Penn football team has a tough act to follow. An Ivy title, an undefeated league season, and statistical records on both sides of the ball are not annual occurrences even for a program of the Quakers stature. So, you want the contrarian view? Here goes: this team is coached by a guy who has a tough act to follow every year, bucko. Its what happens when you win more than three times as many games as you lose over a career that spans more than two decades. Thats a lot of wins, a lot of titles, and a lot of opponents left muttering to themselves, Wait till next year, in the hope that Al Bagnolis team finally falls back into the pack.
The rest of the Ivy League may have been saying those things before last season startedif not in public then behind closed locker-room doors or in the weight room. What must they have thought when none of them came within 20 points of putting the theory into practice? And, what must they be thinking today, on the eve of a season when there appear to be fewer questions about this Quaker team than there were last year.
Theyd better not think too much, or theyve lost half the battle. Because theyll realize that with 15 starters returning, 12 of whom received all-league honors of some type, this Penn squad doesnt figure to come up short in too many areas. To wit: all-time Penn pass-catching leader Rob Milanese W02 graduates with his 85 catches and eight touchdowns, but junior Daniel Castles returns with his six touchdowns last season and a 15.4-yards-per-catch average, best on the team and more than two yards better than Milaneses. The same goes for the running back position, where the graduation of leading rusher Stephen Faulk C02 is offset by the presence of junior Mike Recchiuti and senior Jake Perskie, both of whom got significant playing time and rushed for more yards per carry than Faulk did last season. Recchiuti in particular seems poised for big things: the slashing runner from Downingtown High had the best average per carry (4.2) among the regular running backs and was the only player who stood out in Penns only loss of the season, a 17-3 drubbing played in a monsoon at Villanova on the night of October 10.
This time last year, senior quarterback Mike Mitchell was a player who had never started a game for Penn, about whom little was known and not much was expected. So what does the kid do but lob 20 touchdown passes and throw for 2,800 yards and get named first-team All-Ivy? Hell be a marked man this season, but has there ever been a quarterback who isnt? And how many of them have the kind of veteran offensive line that Mitchell has: all five 2002 starters are back as seniors, including first-team All-Ivy selection Chris Clark, Ben Noll (second-team All-Ivy) and honorable mention selections Matt Dukes and Chris Kupchik.
The Quaker defense has a little more to provelike that it can withstand the losses of first-team All-Ivy players linebacker Travis Belden W03, safety Vince Alexander C03, ends Chris Pennington C03 and Andrew Altman C03, and cornerback Fred Plaza C03. But for a cornerstone there could hardly be a better candidate than senior linebacker Steve Lhotak to anchor the unit. Lhotak may have had a lower profile than some of his more heralded defensive matesthere were so many who were so good, it was easy to get lost in the mixbut he wound up leading the team in tackles (64) and sacks (7). Senior Ryan Strahlendorff (second-team All-Ivy) and junior Ric San Doval (honorable mention) return on the defensive line, though San Doval could move to linebacker to try and fill the hole left by the incomparable Belden.
Speaking of tough acts to follow, the last Ivy team to win back-to-back
titles was Penn in 1993 and 1994, in Bagnolis first two seasons.
It would be unfair not to note the achievements of senior Brian Chaput and Sam Burley C03, both of whom won national titles at the NCAA track and field championships, which happened after the deadline for the July/August issue of the Gazette. Chaputs throw of 258 feet in the javelin beat his closest competitor by 12 feet. Burley won the 800 meters by one one-hundredth of a second. They become the first members of the track team to win NCAA titles since Bruce Collins won the 400-meter hurdles in 1974.
Chaput endured a grueling, 15-month rehabilitation from elbow surgery and missed his sophomore season. Now, he said, I get e-mails and phone calls from people who have had the surgery and they want to know what the secret is. I tell them theres no secret, you just have to do the rehab. But the rehab is so long.
Burley was a champion 400-meter runner in high school who was convinced by Penn coach Charlie Powell to concentrate on the 800. I told him he could be very good in the 400, but he could be a great 800-meter runner, Powell said. I remember he just kind of smiled. The thing about Sam is, he just hates to lose.
David Porter C82 writes for the Associated Press.
2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
News & Sports
Senior Brian Chaput (left) and Sam Burley C03 won national titles at the NCAA track and field championships this summerthe first for Penn since 1974. Chaput won in the javelin throw and Burley won the 800-meter race.