Billy Ragone handing the ball off to Brandon Colavita.
By Dave Zeitlin | Had Billy Ragone decided to stop playing football last fall, it’s doubtful anyone would have blamed him. The quarterback had already won three Ivy League championships in four years with the Quakers’ football program, while becoming the first Penn player to ever rack up more than 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards.
Sure, he had a fifth year of eligibility in his pocket because of the broken collarbone that sidelined him for all but two games of his freshman campaign in 2009. But would he really want to use that after suffering another injury—a gruesome dislocated ankle and fractured fibula—in the penultimate game of the 2012 season?
The answer, in short: absolutely. In fact, Ragone never even considered graduating with his classmates in May, hanging up his cleats, and entering the real world, where the chances of breaking your collarbone or having your ankle twisted 90 degrees in the wrong direction decrease significantly. The opportunity to return to Penn for one more semester, play one more season of football, and try to win one more championship was just too much to pass up.
“I think we’re going to have a special year again this year, and it’s something I wanted to be a part of,” Ragone said shortly before the start of Penn’s training camp in mid-August. “I’ve always been picturing this year, coming back and contributing. Despite the injury, I never really thought otherwise.”
Because of the Ivy League rule that prohibits players from being redshirted, as is common at other colleges, fifth-year seniors are a rare commodity at Penn. But Ragone isn’t the only one taking advantage of the medical hardship waiver that allowed him to return for a “second” senior season. The 2013 Quakers will feature more fifth-year seniors than any Penn team in the past few years, with starting running back Brandon Colavita and defensive back Sam Chwarzynski among the other players that were part of the program back in 2009, when the Quakers snapped a five-year title drought and began their recent period of dominance.
And these players have a unique opportunity in front of them. If the Quakers can win the Ivy League crown outright in 2013, as they were picked to do in the preseason media poll, they will become the first program to ever win four outright titles in five years.
“I think we’re very fortunate,” said Penn head coach Al Bagnoli, who’s entering his 22nd season at the helm. “Every time we have fifth-year kids, they have perspective and maturity. And obviously [Billy’s] been such a key component to our success. It’s a great foundation to start with.”
While thrilled to have such a dynamic quarterback back in the fold, Bagnoli also expressed caution about Ragone’s form—both physical and mental—because of the frightening injury that was seen live on national television during Penn’s dramatic 30-21 win over Harvard last November and is now on YouTube with over 50,000 views. (Ragone says he’s too squeamish to watch the YouTube clip. He’s tried a few times but usually stops the video right before the tackle that shattered his ankle.) Ragone, who underwent extensive rehab, has been cleared to play, but Bagnoli may still lean on another veteran quarterback in senior Ryan Becker—at least early in the year, when Penn opens its season versus Lafayette on September 21 and begins Ivy play against Dartmouth on October 5.
“Billy is a really tough kid and I think that’s one of the underrated things about him,” Bagnoli said. “We just have to be smart with him because we know he’ll want to do everything 100 percent right away. But we anticipate him being 100 percent physically. And we’ll work on the psychological part as we go through to make sure he’s 100 percent psychologically, as well.”
Ragone admitted he might feel nervous before getting tackled for the first time, while the injury is still fresh in his thoughts. But he predicted that after that initial contact, “it will be history and I won’t think about it again.”
The only thing that will be on his mind from there will be guiding an offense that he thinks will be “one of the best we’ve had since I’ve been at Penn,” thanks to the veteran leadership he and Colavita will provide and the return of many other key starters, including all-Ivy offensive lineman Chris Bush and all-Ivy receiver Conner Scott, both seniors. And Penn’s defense, while losing standout Brandon Copeland W’13, will be an experienced unit too, with junior linebacker Dan Davis and senior defensive backs Dan Wilk and Sebastian Jaskowski leading the way.
“I’d stay here forever if they’d let me,” Ragone said. “I feel like I’ve been here for a while, but it’s been such a good experience.”
Like Ragone, Colavita never seriously contemplated leaving the program after four years. The two-time all-Ivy running back only played two games last season before tearing a tendon in his foot in the league opener. Feeling that he had let his teammates down, he immediately made a pledge to himself.
“Once the injury happened, I knew I was coming back,” he said. “There was no way I was leaving on that note.” Now, even though he jokes that he feels like an “old man” on the team, the bruising running back is ready for one last ride with Ragone, whom he called an “incredible” playmaker and teammate.
“As a fifth-year senior, this is a very special season to me,” Colavita said. “I haven’t been more excited for a season.”
Field hockey teams hopes new stadium can chart new course
Colleen Fink had a routine throughout the summer. On the days when she was on campus and not out on the recruiting trail, the Penn field hockey coach would go down to the construction site at Penn’s River Fields area. It was hard for her to envision how the team’s new field hockey stadium would look once construction was finished, but she’d still snap pictures to share with her players and enthusiastically chat with some of the workers about their progress—maybe sometimes a bit too much.
“I went down there today,” Fink said as she settled into a chair at the Dunning Coaches Center in late July, “and one of the guys asked, ‘What’s your name?’ I told him that I’m one of the coaches and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re Colleen.’ I was like, ‘So you know my name and I’ve never met you? I don’t know if that’s good or bad!’”
Forgive Fink if she’s overzealous. It’s been hard for Penn’s third-year head coach to hide her excitement when she knows how important the new stadium will be for the growth of a program that’s won only one Ivy League championship in the past 20 years. “It’s just a game-changer for us,” she said.
Scheduled to open in time for Penn’s first home game on September 21, Ellen Vagelos C’90 Field will the first field hockey-only venue in school history, complete with AstroTurf, a state-of-the-art scoreboard, and bleachers adjacent to the playing surface.
In addition to having “our own little place to call home,” Fink said the most important thing about the new stadium is being able to finally play on AstroTurf, the sport’s preferred playing surface. In the past, the Quakers played on Franklin Field’s SprinTurf, which is ideal for football but too often slows the ball down in field hockey.
“I think everyone loves to play in Franklin Field—the atmosphere, the setting, the romance,” Fink said. “There’s definitely something really special about being in Franklin Field. But I think from a strategic standpoint, it was really challenging … Franklin Field, at times, was kind of like the 12th man. We would call it the turf monster. We would be preparing for a ball, it would be rolling perfectly smooth—and then it hits a divot from a football player.”
On top of that, since almost all of Penn’s away games were played on AstroTurf, Fink would often have her team practice at Drexel’s Vidas Athletic Complex. While that was a logistical inconvenience, even more challenging was trying to recruit the best athletes without having a field hockey facility Penn could call its own.
“I don’t want to say we lost players because we didn’t have an AstroTurf field,” Fink said. “But I think, at times, it was a factor.”
Now the program can not only up the ante on recruiting, but also use the new field to host NCAA playoff games, invite international teams to campus, and generally get more exposure for their sport. And fresh off their first above-.500 season since 2006, Fink also believes the Quakers can continue to rise in both the Ivy League and at the national level.
Could they even start to challenge powerhouse Princeton, which is coming off a national championship in 2012?
“I don’t think there’s anything that can hold us back at this point,” Fink said. “There’s no excuses. If Princeton can do it, so can Penn.”
Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes frequently for the Gazette.