After finishing last for two straight years, thanks to improved pitching, Penn (23-15, 13-3 Ivy) finds itself tied for the best record in the Lou Gehrig Division.
Junior ace Connor Cuff has been one of the biggest driving forces behind the turnaround.
Cuff is 5-2 on the year, giving him the Ancient Eight's third-highest win total. He leads the league with a 1.34 ERA and has five complete games, tying him for the league lead with two others—one of which is Columbia senior lefty David Speer. Cuff headlines a Quakers pitching staff that is tied for the Ivies' lowest ERA at 3.59 and has allowed a league-low 166 runs.
“The culture has really changed here,” Cuff said. “We've had a good run. It's the best since I've been here.”
Cuff is no stranger to being a leader. Hailing from Western Springs, Illinois, Cuff captained his high school team's state championship run, earned first team all-state honors, and posted an undefeated record of 19-0 in two varsity seasons.
But after graduating and moving on to play for the Quakers, it was difficult at first for Cuff to adjust to the new style of college play.
“It was definitely a lot different,” he said, “The speed was much higher—ground balls off the bat and people throwing in general. The whole game was faster.”
As a first-year, Cuff garnered Rookie of the Week honors once and was third on the team with 34 strikeouts. Still, his inexperience showed. He went 1-2 and posted a 5.26 ERA.
His struggles were exasperated when he injured his shoulder. In May of that year, he underwent surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff. His recovery process took six months, but he was back practicing in the winter.
With a heightened sense of purpose, Cuff received more action on the mound. In his sophomore year, he more than doubled his inning count and led the team with 43 strikeouts. The righty recorded four complete games and a much-improved 5-3 record.
Despite his elevated play, Cuff was unable to push his team to the next level, as Penn finished 7-13 in Ivy play. He took it upon himself to turn things around for his ball club in the offseason.
“I just started feeling more comfortable this year. As a junior, I feel I made the step up in a leadership role, and so I put in a little extra work over the summer,” Cuff said. “I think that's probably what has helped me the most.”
This work has paid off. Penn went undefeated against all of the Red Rolfe Division to start off Ivy play 8-0 and posted a 7-5 record in the Lou Gehrig Division to secure a one-game playoff against Columbia, which will be played on Saturday in Philadelphia.
Quakers head coach John Yurkow praised Cuff's performance, noting that his ace has pitched well in big moments.
“He has the ability to make the key pitches when he needs to. He's a very good competitor on the mound as well,” Yurkow said. “He really has a knack for knowing how to pitch in big games.”
Despite his success this season, as Penn's starter, Cuff had trouble against Columbia. On April 25, Cuff gave up six runs—only two earned—in a 6-0 defeat at the hands of the Lions. Columbia had 10 hits in the game.
This weekend, Cuff will seek redemption against Columbia with a chance to send the Quakers to the Ivy League Championship Series.
“We're both 15-5 for a reason,” Cuff said. “It's going to be a dogfight, and I'm just going to prepare as best as I can.”
Muneeb Alam contributed reporting.
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