Where the Quakers finish in the top 12 will be determined Friday and Saturday. It's the first time Penn has cracked the top 12 since 2006, only the second time since 2002. This is a storied program, one that was never out of the top 10 between 1964 and 2001 and won it all as recently as 1992.
Even before the race, "We knew we hadn't done it in a very, very long time," said Penn senior Grant Wilson, who stroked the varsity eight, referring to not reaching the semis. "That was certainly raised."
For Drexel, being one of the 18 schools invited to the IRAs for the full team competition was a first, a real milestone. Dragons varsity eight coxswain Randall Lee, a William Tennent High graduate, offered a local analogy as context. "It's probably like a local Philadelphia college reaching the Final Four, like the St. Joe's team with Jameer Nelson getting as far as they did," remembering when the Hawks hoop team reached the Elite Eight in 2004.
In this week's company, Drexel was definitely the severe underdog - a 16th seed, in March Madness parlance - and rowing is not an "any given day" kind of sport, where the ball can suddenly start going in the basket and you can pull off the big upset. Drexel pretty much knew its varsity eight wasn't going to make the semis. Powerhouse California won the rep in 5 minutes, 38 seconds. Drexel was sixth in 5:59.
When he was a freshman, Lee said, getting an IRA invite would have been a pipe dream. His own path to the sport was indirect. He had played soccer and tennis in high school. In his freshman year at Drexel, his roommate was on the soccer team while he hung out alone.
"I kind of felt like I was disconnected from Drexel," Lee said.
He joined the crew team as a coxswain and admitted it was intimidating to bark out orders as a walk-on novice and expect seniors to follow. But he grew into the role and now is a team leader.
Down the street at Penn, Wilson got into rowing the way so many do, first kind of stumbling upon it, then turning it into a lifestyle. He had started college at Carnegie Mellon and tried out for the soccer and tennis teams, getting cut from both. He then turned to crew and enjoyed rowing, although it was a club sport there, not too serious.
His older brother had picked up rowing at Penn and spoke glowingly of the traditions. Wilson decided to transfer. This year, he is commodore of the team, sort of a second captain. He also has a 3.9 grade-point average in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics with a minor in mathematics and was named recipient of the George Frazier Award, presented to the graduating student-athlete, male or female, with the highest GPA in basketball, rowing, track, soccer, baseball or football.
None of that mattered on Thursday, though.
"Going into the race, it was Dartmouth, really, that we wanted to take out," Wilson said. "They were really close to us at Eastern Sprints."
Dartmouth jumped out fast, taking the lead over Penn, Cornell and Navy, with only the top three advancing.
Then Penn made that big move. The announcer said the Quakers had pushed in front.
"Matt called us in the lead," Wilson said, referring to Quakers coxswain Matt Mildenberg. "Sometimes he lies to us. I guess he was telling the truth."
Cornell and Navy eventually passed, all three advancing by finishing within 2.2 seconds of each other. Wilson thought Penn got a little complacent toward the end, when only lane seedings were on the line. But nobody else was coming.
Afterward, there was no giant celebration. They carried the boat to the trailer, immediately tied it down. Then there were a few slaps on the back and a quiet meeting where they talked about what they had just achieved before they walked over to the river's edge to watch the second varsity eight also qualify for the semis.
The season had started out a little shaky, Wilson said. They had lost to some of the boats they beat Thursday. But he'll remember this eight for its attitude, how after each race they talked about what they could do to get "faster and faster."
Friday, they'll see if they can get a little closer to past glory.
"We've really achieved something," Wilson said. "For us seniors, let's try to make the biggest step we can. Let's go further, so the next year's can take the step from there - so we can start being one of the boats that medals here."
Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or email@example.com or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter. Read his "Off Campus'' columns at www.philly.com/offcampus.