Friday, December 29, 2006

The Last Weekend in 2006

Gah! Here I am closing out the last workday in 2006, and I flat-out forgot about my talk on the men's basketball, women's basketball, and wrestling for this weekend! It probably won't by my best posting of all-time, but here goes.

The men's basketball team, who last week hung tough with Rutgers of the Big East but fell 76-71, travel to Monmouth, NJ tonight to take on the Hawks. Monmouth is 3-8 and has to be a "statement game" for Lehigh going forward. Two very winnable games loom before Lehigh hits the important part - the league schedule. After Monmouth tonight, it's Columbia (a surprising 7-5) who manhandled Lafayette two weeks ago. Despite the records, Monmouth isn't as bad as 3-8 and Columbia's not as good as 7-4, but our battered team needs two wins here to go into the league with a head of steam.

The Lady Hawks are hosting Gardner-Webb (3-8) tonight at Stabler, followed by Yale (3-7) on Wednesday. Both winnable games, Yale has won some quality games at home, but has struggled on the road - a good recipe for Sue Troyan's squad. Same rule applies as for the men: it would be great to get a head of steam before the challenge of the "Christmas City Classic" and the league schedule.

The wrestlers are taking a trip down south for the "Southern Scuffle" with a host of nationally-ranked teams. I don't know much about this, but I do know that if Lehigh puts in a good performance here, it will send a message to the rest of the Top 25 that we're back after some early struggles. Here's hoping we get some hardware!

Happy New Year everybody. Come back next year and see more ramblings on football and other Lehigh sports!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

2006 In Review; LFN Hawks of the Year; A Peek at 2007

In this holiday time when we're sweeping out 2006 and ushering in 2007, it's a time to look behind, pick Lehigh Football Nation's players of the year, and also to peek ahead a little.

2006 In Review
In a season where the Mountain Hawks were picked to finish third in the preseason, you would think Lehigh fans would have been happy with a co-championship in head coach Andy Coen's first year. But in a season with tough losses to the Ivy League and NEC, and Lehigh's third straight loss to Lafayette (and losing a D-I playoff bid in the process), it sure as heck didn't feel like a championship. Yet the fact remains it still was a championship year as coach Coen slowly brought his brand of football to South Mountain, going 5-1 in the league after a 1-4 out-of-conference record.

Coming off an offseason which saw the offense and defense have major shifts in phlilosophy, it could have been expected that the Mountain Hawks come out of the gate a little slowly. But after a shock loss to Albany (7-4) of the NEC (who would go on and upset Delaware of the A-10 a few weeks later), Lehigh travelled to Villanova, PA and upset the Wildcats of the A-10 31-28 in one of the Mountain Hawks' best performances of the year. DB Daynin Blake's fourth-down sack sealed Lehigh's first win over Villanova since 1924, and their first win over an A-10 opponent since Lehigh beat Hofstra in the first round of the I-AA playoffs in 2001.

Lehigh fans expect their Engineers to beat up on the Ivy League, but this year the balance of power shifted. In three excruciating losses to Harvard (7-3), and Ivy co-champions Yale (8-2) and Princeton (9-1), one game went to overtime and the other losses were by a combined six points. A play or two in the Princeton and Harvard games could have put either game in the win column for us. The Yale game could have been the most frustrating as the Elis racked up some uncharaceristically big yards against the Hawks - yet we still were in the game in overtime.

Yet Lehigh proceeded to rip through their conference schedule. In a crucial bad-weather game up in Worcester, MA, Lehigh won their first "mud bowl" in a long time by beating 6-2 Holy Cross 28-14. With Lehigh having lost their first game this year versus Albany in a rainstorm, and having lost last year (13-10) to the Crusaders at home in a rainstorm, it's impossible to underestimate the impact this game had going forward for the Hawks. Coach Coen had turned the corner; this was no longer the finesse pass-dependent team of the past ten years. It was his team now, a team that can smack a pass-happy team like the Crusaders in the mouth. Watching the end of that game, Holy Cross looked beaten up early in the 4th quarter. Even down two TDs, it was clear that there was no way they were coming back.

With at least a Patriot League championship wrapped up after demolishing Fordham 45-14, all that was left to do was to beat Lafayette in "The Rivalry" - the final ghost to exorcise, the final game to get back to the D-I Playoffs, the Patriot League Championship game. In a sold-out Fisher field, compete with new Field Turf and scoreboard, Lafayette withstood a mid-game surge to beat our beloved Hawks 49-27. Down 28-7, Lehigh rallied all the way back to 28-27 before Lafayette's Brad Maurer and Jonathan Hurt put the hammer down on our defense to put the game away. It is one ghost that will have to be exorcised next year.

It's a bittersweet championship year. But also, in a strange way, a retooling year as well. We went from a spread-offense spread passing team to a team that can gut it out on the ground when necessary. We went from a 4-3 defensive line-based defense to a more flexible 3-4 linebacker-based defense. Lehigh fans are not used to going 6-5, and Lehigh and the rest of the Patriot League have to spend a long offseason finding a way to leap ahead of the Harvards, Yales, and Princetons once again. But next season, with a full season under his belt and some prized recruits coming to town, Lehigh looks poised to be strong again next year as well. Year One of the Coen era is over, with a bittersweet championship. I think Lehigh fans are still excited about Year Two, coming up in nine short months.

A Peek at 2007
Recruiting season is already hot and heavy, but already with one surprising transfer on the roster (WR Frank Lawler, from Wake Forest) it looks like we're poised for a great class. Lawler looks like a burner who also runs track, who could give us some more depth at WR, especially as a burner which we so desperately need. In addition, we'll need a lot of bulk and talent on both the offensive and defensive lines, where we lose four "O" line starters and two "D" line starters (not to mention DT Royce Morgan, another all-first-team Patriot League player). Add to that the need for replacing two starting LBs and our starting TE, and recruiting will be interesting.

Of course, having QB Sedale "The Total Package" Threatt returning next year will be huge, as well as RB Matt McGowan, WR Sekou Yansane and many skill players. DB Brannan Thomas will petition for a 5th year, anchoring an experienced secondary. Some exciting LBs also return with Tim Diamond and Matt Cohen, underclassmen who look like players who could be competing for major playing time next year.

Spring football is only three short months away...

Hawks of the Year
Every year I give my awards to four players: the Offensive Hawk of the Year; the Defensive Hawk of the Year; the Special Teams Hawk of the Year; and the LFN Player of the Year. Here are the honors for 2006.

The title of Offensive Hawk of the year goes to the runaway winner (pun intended), senior RB Marques "Mud" Thompson. Not only did he produce the best photo of the 2006 season (shown here courtesy of the Worcester Times-Gazette), in his quiet, unselfish way he racked up some great numbers and some significant runs for this Lehigh team in 2006. Called "Double Deuces" by his teammates, his 43 yard scamper in the 4th quarter of the Villanova game set up the go-ahead touchdown with under four minutes to play. His 30 rush, 141 yard performance against Holy Cross broke the Crusaders' backs and quietly disproved any disbeleivers about his durability. Overall, his 1,100 all-purpose yards and 8 TDs led the team, and for this stellar effort Marques gets Offensive Hawk of the Year.

On defense, for the first time ever, we have a tie for Defensive Hawk of the year, The recipients are seniors LB Micah Greene and senior NT Eric Rakus, though it may be fitting on a defense where individual performances really took a back seat to overall team play. Micah, the big middle linebacker out of Richmond, VA, racked up 58 tackles and returned a fumble on opening day for a TD against Albany, while Eric "Big Daddy" Rakus had 54 team tackles (including a league-leading 10 tackles for loss) to go with an interception and a forced fumble. With both players, though, the story simply isn't statistics. Greene and Rakus were big on a stat that I call "play disruptions". Eric and Micah took offenses out of their gameplans by being everywhere and attacking offenses with reckless abandon. It's not often you see nose tackles or middle linebackers disrupting passes underneath consistently, but that's what they did in 2006. These guys had the right attitude for the defense, and I am sincerely hoping that next year, the defense takes a page from these guys.

Special Teams Hawk goes to P/K Jason Leo. After a 2005 where the Engineers struggled kicking the ball, Jason brought welcome consistency to both the kicking and punting games in 2006. A solid punter with a 37.88 average (including a 48 yarder), Jason went 33 for 34 on extra points and 12 for 18 on FGs including a pair of 41 yarders against Yale and Colgate. It's even more of an accomplishment when you consider that two of those misses came in the gale against Albany, including a 48 yard prayer at the end of the game. Lehigh Nation is very much looking forward to Jason's upside in 2007 and beyond as he could improve even further.

I don't think the honor of Hawk of the Year will come as any surprise to any regular reader of this blog. WR Frank "Al Del Greco" Trovato was the runaway winner. A gritty competitor who had to wait his turn on the receiving corps for three years, Frank blossomed in his senior year as the go-to receiver and feared punt returner on this Lehigh team. At 5'9 and 170, he is hardly a prototypical wideout - someone who had to fight his way for everything he had on this team. Yet his fighting spirit singlehandedly kept Lehigh in games in 2006. Two huge TDs against Villanova - one on a punt return and another on a pass from QB Sedale Threatt - were the difference in that game. After seeing his stuff in that game, teams consistently punted away from him - yet Trovato still managed 283 yards in punt returns. Frank led the team in receptions with 39 and in receiving yards with 594, despite being banged up most of the year. In the biggest game of the year, Frank hauled in 8 receptions for 138 yards and a TD. With what he meant overall to this team, it was a travesty that he didn't make first or second team All-Patriot League (though, had the team featured a punt returner, he probably would have made it).

Why "Al Del Greco" as a nickname? It's one I coined for him, based on an old Nike Commercial. The commerical involved a fan talking about the greatest NFL players of all time. The fan would list people like "Franco Harris", "Roger Staubach", and legends like that, but he would always end with "...and still at number one, Al Del Greco!". He was an above-average kicker for the Houston Oilers in the 90s that looked like a throwback to George Blanda, but undoubtedly a tough guy. It seemed like every game I was posting... "and, still at number one, Frank Trovato!"

After a season like that, it's hardly a surprise that Frank gets Hawk of the Year.

Congratulations to everyone!
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