Penn: After ending regional drought, Quakers ready for encore

The Quakers were a win shy of super regionals last year and are set up well for another big year in the Ivy League.

Penn's Ryan Dromboski

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In February of 2022, coming off of just a 14-game season, Penn went down to College Station, Texas and took two of three from SEC powerhouse Texas A&M. The Quakers, despite all of the frustrations and difficulties faced in the prior two campaigns, rallied past the Aggies in the Sunday rubber match with a five-run ninth inning.

One could consider that Penn’s re-entry on the national stage.

While the Quakers ultimately failed to reach the NCAA Tournament at the end of the year, falling to Columbia in the Ivy League championship series, the foundation was in place under head coach John Yurkow. After a 33-win 2022, the Quakers only improved the following year — they repeated as Ivy League regular season champions, won the inaugural Ivy League tournament, and returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995.

They didn’t just return, either. Penn knocked off regional host Auburn and Samford in back-to-back games, coming one win shy of a first-ever super regional appearance. The Quakers became the first-ever Ivy League squad to beat an SEC side in the postseason — the conference that had 10 bids and accounts for the last four national champions.

“When we went down to A&M in 22 and won that series for our first weekend, we played really well, and I think we opened up some eyes beating those guys,” Yurkow reflected. “I think playing those types of teams has really helped our team kind of elevate to another level where our guys feel like they can compete with anybody.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Quakers looked at home in Plainsman Park down in Alabama. While a pair of losses to Southern Miss ended their season — and saw the graduations of a host of talent — Penn enters 2024 with confidence in its pitching, the top hitter in the conference, and an intriguing lineup.

Last year, the Quakers faced another SEC team to start the year: South Carolina. The Gamecocks swept the series, but it was far from comfortable. Two of the three games were decided by a single run, with a solo home run deciding the second.

The series was meaningful for Penn for a few reasons — first, that they were more than capable of playing at a high level. Second, it marked the first-ever start for Ryan Dromboski, a sophomore righthander that was thrust into the weekend rotation due to injury. Dromboski gave up two runs in three innings, but it was just the beginning of what would become a remarkable year.

Dromboski had only made six appearances as a freshman out of the bullpen but had started to find his form over the summer in the Atlantic College League. That carried over to his return to Penn, but despite being penciled into a larger role, he hadn’t quite cracked the rotation. An injury changed that and it was a role he wouldn’t relinquish, developing more and more as the year went on.

Penn's Ryan Dromboski
Ryan Dromboski (Penn Athletics)

“He just kept getting better and better and better — 90 to 92 mph, three pitches,” Yurkow said. “And there were some games where he had all of them working. He was dominant on the mound and you really have to give him a lot of credit. It was a pretty significant turnaround.”

Dromboski finished the year 7-3 with a 3.17 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 71 innings, earning Ivy League Pitcher of the Year honors. He’s picked to repeat that title in 2024, an honor likely locked in as soon as he scattered two runs and three hits over 5-plus innings against Auburn with eight strikeouts.

He’s a big reason why the Quakers will feel confident about their chances to repeat, especially when you consider his rotation mate Cole Zaffiro was right in the running for the league’s award as well.

Zaffiro, a relative veteran entering his fourth year with the Quakers, has 24 starts under his belt and polished off last year with a 3.13 ERA and 80 strikeouts across 72 innings of work. Like Dromboski, he was unfazed by the high stakes of regionals — he hurled eight innings against Samford, allowing two runs while striking out eight.

“Obviously that’s a luxury to have with Drombo and Cole Zaffiro,” Yurkow said. “They’re two really experienced guys and they throw a ton of strikes.”

Another moment in the Quakers season that would be prominently featured in any documentary montage came in the final weekend series against Columbia — the team that beat them in the 2022 Ivy League Championship Series. Harvard was neck and neck with Penn for the conference title, but after the first game of a doubleheader, the Quakers controlled their own destiny. Win out and an outright Ivy League title belonged to them.

The afternoon game did not start well, however. Zaffiro got knocked around and errors proved costly. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, Penn trailed by four runs and hadn’t mustered anything offensively in the last four innings.

Things changed, quickly. The first two baserunners reached, setting up Cole Palis to line a three-run home run down the right field line. The bases quickly reloaded with a single, double, and intentional walk. Then, with one out, freshman Ryan Taylor tied the game with a single and another first-year, Jarrett Pokrovsky, walked it off with a single to left-center.

The rest was history: Penn won the series finale, 10-4, to become outright Ivy League champions for the first time since 1994. The Quakers rolled through the conference tournament, beating Columbia (again), Harvard, and Princeton while scoring double-digit runs in each game.

“We came all the way back to beat those guys and we wound up sweeping them,” Yurkow said. “And then we actually played them again right after we played them three times in the conference tournament, and we were able to win that game as well. That really propelled us to win the tournament championship for the first time, which was awesome.”

Some key pieces from that lineup — Jackson Appel, Ben Miller, Palis, and Seth Werchan — have graduated, but the Quakers will feel good about who they get back. Not only the likes of Taylor, Pokrovsky, and Davis Baker — three freshman that were everyday starters — but the biggest name of them all: Wyatt Henseler.

In the words of Yurkow, Henseler is the last guy you want to pitch to with runners on base. In his three years with Penn, Henseler is hitting .352/.436/.662 with 75 extra base hits. Last season, the junior third baseman clubbed 18 home runs, 17 doubles, and drove in 63 runs.

“He has a knack for hitting home runs and doubles in big spots and has always been that way,” Yurkow said. “He’ll hunt pitches. It’s not just fastballs — he’ll hit breaking balls out and he can leave the park anywhere. He can pull the ball, hit opposite field, and hit a ball out of center field.”

Penn's Wyatt Henseler
Wyatt Henseler (Penn Athletics)

The foundation of the lineup, Henseler will star around the trio of rising sophomores that had excellent debut seasons — Taylor, Pokrovsky, and Baker. Tayor hit .254 with 12 doubles, while Baker was third on the team in OPS (.894) and Pokrovsky posted a .292/.385/.404 slash line. “You could really see those guys grow as the season went along,” Yurkow said.

Taylor has moved from second base to center field this season, while Baker starts at short and Pokrovsky slots in at right field. After them, Asa Wilson — who started 20 games last season — figures to get the share of time behind the plate, while true freshman Nick Spaventa projects to be a lineup constant.

Spaventa, out of Pitman, N.J., was described by Yurkow as “one of the best pure freshman hitters I think I’ve ever coached.” He led the team in hitting in the fall and is a physical, strong hitter that consistently produces high exit velocities.

When he’s not playing first base, he’ll be DHing for the Quakers. Other newcomers to know include first baseman Nick Guachione, second baseman Connor Chavez, and outfielder Gavin Collins. They’ll compete with returnees Calvin Brown, Alex Gabauer, and Nate Polo for the remaining lineup spots.

In the rotation, after Drombroski and Zaffiro, the Quakers have the benefit of returning a quality midweek starter from a year ago in John Cerwinski. The sophomore went 3-0 with a 4.44 ERA across nine appearances, eight starts, in 2023.

The bullpen, meanwhile, is stocked with proven arms. Perhaps none is more interesting than Carson Ozmer, who who was the team’s top reliever a year ago and has been stretched out this preseason to potentially be used in a swing role. He made a team-high 25 appearances, posting a 35:8 K/BB ratio across 34-plus innings with a 1.83 ERA and six saves. Ozmer also could factor in at first base as a two-way guy.

Penn's Carson Ozmer
Carson Ozmer (Penn Athletics)

After him, Tommy Delany (30 IP, 5.10 ERA), Eli Trop (19 IP, 2.37 ERA), and Edward Sarti (19.2 IP, 3.66 ERA, 2 SV) are back after a combined 58 appearances. The Quakers will be looking for Will Tobin (22 IP, 8.18 ERA) to take a step forward as the go-to lefthanded arm out of the bullpen. While freshmen may feature more prominently in the lineup, Penn has some newcomers pushing for roles — southpaw Marty Coyne and righthander Josh Katz.

Ultimately, the Quakers have quite a core of veteran, experienced talent that know what it takes to win in the postseason — both at the conference level and in regionals. It’s not hard to project that taking them far once again in the 2024 season.

Featured Images via Penn Athletics