Penn Leads Ivy League’s Eye-Opening Return To ActionFeatures
On Sunday, two days after playing a role in Penn’s first victory over an SEC opponent in 99 years, Quakers left fielder Seth Werchan started sprinting full speed for a fly ball, knowing that neither he nor the wall in foul territory would back down.
A bloody mouth was Werchan’s destiny.
But so was victory.
Penn has been playing baseball since 1875. This past weekend marked the first time a Quakers team had ever taken a series from an SEC squad, and Werchan’s relentless spirit is emblematic of the entire Penn squad.
“My whole team knows me – I’m the psycho,” Werchan said with a laugh. “I’m going to go for any ball, make the crazy catch.”
As it turned out, Werchan’s fourth-inning sprint toward that wall didn’t even show up in the box score. He didn’t catch that fly ball that was slicing hard and fast off the bat of Texas A&M lefty-swinging Brett Minnich. Werchan’s cap and sunglasses flew over the wall and into the Aggies’ bullpen once the collision happened.
But Werchan’s pursuit of the ball let the several thousand A&M fans crammed inside Olsen Field in College Station on Sunday know two things:
One, the Penn Quakers would not be satisfied with just that 2-1 win on Friday.
Two, Werchan – a Texan who started at free safety for the Bowie Jackrabbits and also dated a cheerleader during his high school glory days – wasn’t coming out of Sunday’s game just because he needed five stitches to stop the blood from pouring out of his mouth.
Werchan said he was more aggressive than usual on this play.
“There are no padded walls (at Penn), so when I saw those padded walls (at College Station), I said, ‘I’m going to go for it,’” Werchan remarked.
“I blacked (out) for a second when I hit the wall. The next thing I know, I’m on my back. I wasn’t afraid of the wall, but it hurt. It was padded, but there was concrete behind it.”
Werchan’s next thought was that his teeth had been knocked out of his mouth. Last year, during an intrasquad game, he took an 89 mph fastball in the face from teammate Cole Zaffiro.
On that occasion, Werchan escaped with nothing more than a busted lip. This time, Werchan thought he had done even more damage.
“But I asked one of the Aggie guys, ‘Yo, are my teeth in?’” Werchan said. “He said, ‘Yeah’.
“Then I figured out that I bit through my lip. Our trainer (Mike Burkeitt) came out and said, ‘Dude, you have a whole in your face. I can see your teeth through your skin.’
“I’m kind of smiling, and I say, ‘Get me cleaned up. Get me back in there.’”
Penn coach John Yurkow joked that he thought for a moment that he was at a fight show.
“(Burkiett) looked like a cut guy in MMA,” Yurkow said. “He was putting Vaseline on (Werchan), trying to get the blood to stop.
“Seth is from Texas. He had a lot of family members there. I couldn’t get him out of the game.”
Werchan’s teammates were busy giving him high-fives and telling him, “Dude, you’re a maniac.”
But before going back in the game, Werchan was asked by Burkiett if he were OK.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Werchan responded. “We’re playing the Aggies.”
Translation: Werchan — a native of Austin and a lifelong Longhorns fan with season tickets to Texas football and basketball games — wasn’t going to miss this opportunity to beat the Aggies. Even though Texas A&M isn’t Penn’s rivalry game, it was personal for Werchan.
“I said, ‘It’s time to turn it up a notch’,” Werchan said. “It’s go time.”
Indeed, the Quakers never led in that game’s first eight innings, trailing 5-1 through six.
But before we run through how the series ended, here’s how it began:
In Friday’s series opener played in 35-degree temperatures that seemed advantageous to the Quakers, Penn reliever Owen Coady got the win, pitching the longest outing of his career, striking out eight batters in 4.2 innings.
“They did not like the cold,” Werchan said of the Aggies. “Southern guys, I know what it’s like. We hate playing in the cold. It was 35 but 20-something with the wind chill. We walked out there with short-sleeve shirts, and the Aggies were wearing long sleeves with heaters in the dugout.”
After a Saturday rain-out, Aggies righthander Micah Dallas dominated in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader. He beat Penn 5-0, allowing a leadoff, first-pitch single and then no hits after that, finishing with 10 strikeouts and one walk (to Werchan) in eight innings. Aggies closer Joseph Menefee worked a perfect ninth to close out the win as the last 20 Penn batters went down in order.
By the time the seventh rolled around in the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader, the Quakers had scored just two runs in 24 innings.
In the next three innings, however, the Quakers put up seven runs, winning the game, 8-5.
Third baseman Wyatt Henseler, who was named the Ivy League’s Player of the Week after going 6-for-10 with four extra-base hits, two walks and four RBIs this past weekend, started the comeback with a leadoff double in the seventh. He scored on Ben Miller’s single, and suddenly it was 5-2.
In the eighth, Werchan stroked a leadoff single and scored when Henseler drew a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk. That made it 5-3.
The Aggies’ Menefee, who had closed out the first game of the doubleheader, was pressed into service. He was one of eight pitchers used in that second game, closing out the eighth and starting the ninth in an effort to nail down the save.
“I’m so proud of Menefee and how he competed,” Aggies coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “I can’t remember the last time I used a pitcher twice in one day in February.
“That’s a conference-tournament-type move, but it was our best option at the time. (Menefee) felt great.”
So did the Quakers.
Andrew Hernandez led off the ninth inning with a single. Werchan, Penn’s nine-hole hitter, singled and – with his right leg in pain from that collision with the wall – he finally gave way to pinch-runner Cole McGonigal. Leadoff batter Tommy Courtney then singled to load the bases, and Yurkow started to sense something special was happening.
Yurkow loved that Werchan and Courtney – both lefty hitters – had singled off the Aggies’ lefty closer.
“OK, we’ve got a shot here,” Yurkow said.
Yurkow knew the significance of what was unfolding.
“In between games of the doubleheader, we had 40 minutes,” Yurkow said. “I told our team, ‘Don’t be happy with just participating and winning one game. You have a chance to do something (special)’.”
After loading the bases, that something special started to happen as Jackson Appel singled to make it 5-4.
That knocked Menefee out of the game. Reliever Alex Magers was immediately greeted by Craig Larsen’s three-run, opposite-field double down the line in right on a 1-0 pitch, giving Penn a 7-5 lead.
“In the ninth is when the Aggies started bringing in all their pitchers, and they just didn’t have anything,” Werchan said. “We just started smoking the ball. We started finding barrels. Energy was through the roof. They didn’t have an answer, and it was one of the coolest comebacks I’ve ever been a part of.”
Henseler then completed his 4-for-4 game with an RBI double, and Brendan Bean earned the win by pitching his second straight scoreless inning.
“It was like Christmas,” Werchan said when asked what it felt like for him and his family to beat the Aggies. “My dad (Texas graduate Alan Werchan) couldn’t believe it. He’s been watching the rivalry between the Aggies and Longhorns his entire life. For my dad, watching his son help beat the Aggies was better than anything, and it was personal for me, too.”
Penn is now 2-1, coming off the program’s first season-opening series win since 2009.
It was an impressive performance on many fronts.
For starters, the Quakers are a Northern team that is forced by cold weather to have most if not all of its preseason workouts indoors due to the cold weather, which is not the case for Texas A&M.
In addition, the Aggies were at home and are the superior team, at least historically. The Aggies made the NCAA Tournament 13 straight years from 2007 to 2019, reaching the College World Series as recently as 2017.
The Quakers have only made the NCAA Tournament five times – and not since 1995. They have never advanced past the regional round.
In addition, the series win over the Aggies was impressive because the Quakers are part of the Ivy League — the only Division I conference in the nation to skip the 2021 season, due to COVID concerns.
Penn, though, was the only Ivy team to play at least some games last year, going 6-8, playing three games against Villanova, two against Delaware and nine versus La Salle, which has since dropped baseball.
“I definitely think it helped us,” Yurkow said of the brief 2021 schedule. “We had some semblance of a spring last year. It was limited, but we were at least together for two or three months.
“Last spring felt like a fall season. But at least our freshmen got to experience Division I baseball. None of the other Ivies were able to do that.
“Then, we had 25 of our guys who played summer ball. So, coming into the fall, I didn’t feel like we were as far behind.”
Due to all of that, Yurkow – who has been Penn’s coach since July of 2013 — said he wasn’t shocked his team prevailed over the Aggies.
“A couple of years ago, it got to the point where we were recruiting better,” he said. “I felt like our talent level was starting to come up. I felt we could play (better) teams. Next year, we open at South Carolina.”
Yurkow said the Aggies crowds were a challenge.
“College Station is not an easy place to play,” he said. “There are 70,000 kids who go to school there, and that student section was well represented over the course of the weekend.”
There were 3,500 fans at Olsen Field on Sunday – nearly all of them rooting against Penn – and it was like that for just about every Ivy League team this past weekend.
All eight Ivy League teams went on the road, and six of them earned at least one victory.
In Miami, Harvard stunned the Hurricanes, 11-6, in the opener in front of about 3,000 fans. Miami was ranked 24th in the nation at the time, but Harvard rallied from an early deficit, pounding 13 hits.
Harvard’s Zach Brown drove in three runs and fell a triple short of the cycle.
Miami coach Gino DiMare was asked about Harvard’s 719-day gap between games.
“Harvard hasn’t been sitting on its butts for two years,” DiMare said. “They’ve been working hard, and their offense was impressive to me.”
Harvard lost the next two games against Miami, but one of them was very close at 2-1.
Nine of the 13 players Harvard used on Friday made their collegiate debuts, and yet the Crimson still managed to beat Miami for the first time since 1997. Harvard snapped a five-game losing streak to Miami on Friday, getting the final out on center fielder Hunter Baldwin’s sensational diving catch.
Here’s a quick look at how the other Ivy League teams fared this past weekend:
• At Louisville, Dartmouth won one of three games, beating the Cardinals 6-4. It was Dartmouth’s first win in more than two years, since Feb. 23, 2020.
Dartmouth senior Cole Roland made his collegiate debut and earned the win in long relief, retiring 10 straight batters at one point. His career delayed by injuries and the COVID cancellation of 2021, Roland allowed just one hit and two runs in four innings.
• At Auburn, Yale won one of three games, coming close to a series win. Auburn needed a walk-off homer to win the second game, 4-3. Yale then won the finale, 5-4, in 10 innings. It was Yale’s first win over an SEC team since 2014.
• At Stetson, Columbia won one of three games, scoring 17 runs in the series against a program known for pitching. An 8-3 win on Friday was Columbia’s first season-opening victory since 2014. It was also Columbia’s first-ever win over Stetson, coming after eight losses.
• At Memphis, Brown won one of three games, beating the Tigers, 7-6, in the finale.
• Only two Ivy League teams – Princeton (0-4 versus Purdue) and Cornell (0-3 against Virginia) went winless. But two of Princeton’s losses were by one run.
“It’s great for the league,” Yurkow said of the seven overall victories. “The level of the Ivy League over the past five or six years has really improved. You are seeing more kids getting drafted out of the Ivy.
“I’m just glad we’re back playing. These kids have been through a lot, not just at Penn, but at all eight Ivy League schools.”
• Yurkow on Penn third baseman and cleanup batter Henseler, a true sophomore: “He’s going to be a special player. I think we’re only going to have him for three years (before he goes pro).”
• Yurkow on Coady, a 6-3, 230-pound junior lefty who has now made eight collegiate appearances: “He pitched in the Cape last year, and he has three pitches, 87-89 on his fastball. He can be a swing guy, starter or reliever.”