Friday, January 12, 2007

My Dilemna

Some explanation is in order here. Undoubtedly you're surfing over here to read about my analysis of Lehigh's basketball and wrestling teams this weekend, and don't worry, I'll get to that. But all week I've been struggling with my NFL allegiances. Let me explain.

I grew up in the New York area, but moved overseas for about seven years of my life. As a youngster, my allegiances changed quite a bit - Giants, Jets, Redskins. While living overseas in high school, however, I finally settled on the Saints as my team. Why the Saints? Maybe because in 1986 they were on the rise; maybe because I had a lot of respect for coach Jim Mora and the Philadelphia Stars of the old USFL; maybe because I loved the "Dome Patrol" and their take-no-prisoners 3-4 defense; or maybe simply because my fathers' jazz musician contemporaries liked the team. As a result of this, I picked up on the Saints just in time to enjoy their first-ever winning season and playoff appearance.

Going to college at Lehigh didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the Saints. "Who Dat" branded me as different to my residence hall and to my friends. My friends were probably mostly bemused by it at best, or annoyed by it at worst, but they had no doubts that I was serious about it. Living in Bethlehem didn't mean I became an Eagles fan. When the Saints lost to the Eagles 36-20 in 1993 (after the Saints' third straight epic meltdown in the playoffs with a 20-7 lead) I got many calls from ecstatic Eagles fans rubbing it in my face. Needless to say, I was no Eagles fan then.

Since the Mora era ended ("Playoffs? You want to talk to me about the playoffs?"), there haven't been too many Saints highlights to celebrate, though through the 90s I still went to the sports bar to follow my team, through Ditka (ugh) and Haslett (better, especially in January 2001). But then I met my wife - a Philadelphia girl through and through. When we got married and moved back to the Philadelphia area, it was clear that she was (like all good Philadelphia natives) rooting for the Eagles first, the Flyers next, and didn't care about anything else. In a nutshell, I could keep Lehigh and the Red Sox. But this was going to be an Eagles family - our son was going to be dressed in Eagle green, not Saints gold.

This was fine with me while the Saints had Aaron Brooks as a QB. I still followed the Saints, but I also followed the Eagles and got excited when they did well. Last year, the Saints didn't have a home, were eyeing a move to San Antonio, and were 3-13. (And did I mention Aaron Brooks was the QB? This cannot be emphasized enough.) I followed the Eagles a lot more closely, even if T.O. was a cancer that caused the team's collapse. I liked McNabb, Westbrook, Reno Mahe and the rest of them, only a year removed from their Super Bowl appearance. Being in a true Eagles community, and feeling the genuine spring in everyone's step when they win, is pretty incredible. The Eagles, Westbrook's running, the fierce defense, won me over.

This year, though, the Saints have put together a team with a brand-new head coach that, frankly, is one of the best, hungriest, butt-kicking NFL head coaches I've ever seen in Sean Payton. (Watch him -he clearly has it, that intangible quality that makes a great coach. That go-for-the-jugular, will-do-anything-it-takes-to-win look that only folks like Parcells and Bellicheck had in their primes.) Anyone who humiliates the overrated Cowboys and thuggish Giants in consecutive weeks has to seriously get some sort of award. With instant impact player RB Reggie Bush joining the team (who falls in the Saints' lap after the Texans make a Ken O'Brien-esque draft goof) with scrap-heap QB Drew Brees, seventh-round draft pick Marques Colston, durable back Deuce McAllister and badass Joe Horn, it's a mishmosh of a team that is something special. It feels like New Orleans in 1986 all over again.

Even though the Saints won me over again, I still smiled when the Eagles swept the sorry Cowboys and beat the Giants twice in three weeks. When the Saints aren't involved, I root for Westbrook, Trotter, and yes, even Jeff Garcia. The QB on the brink of retirement, bring the Eagles to the promised land. Like the Saints, the storylines are no less compelling.

This week has been excruciating - not at all like when the Saints beat the Eagles earlier in the season 27-24. That week I could tell my family, friends and co-workers that it was a good team who won, but I also wished the other team well. In my heart, that's even how I feel about this game - for the winner on Saturday, I'll be rooting for them to win the whole thing. But constantly - at work and at home - I'm asked to choose. Eagles or Saints? My community, or my childhood team? Do I root for a team who plays 45 minutes from where I live, or do I root for a team from a place where I've never lived, and attended exactly one home game (when Jim Everett was the QB, no less)? At work on Friday, do I wear an Eagles hat, a Saints shirt, or do I wear the Eagles shirt with the Saints tie?

Today at work we had an Eagles party, and, unsurprisingly, I found myself over at the (untouched) cajun wings. There's a moral (or a joke) in there, somewhere - I'm probably too dim to figure it out, but it's got to be there. Cajun wings on Friday, and cheesesteaks and gumbo on Saturday - I don't know what's going to happen, or how it will tear my fan allegiances apart, but I'll be there for one interesting, bittersweet evening.

****************************************************

In a feat of unfortunate scheduling, Lehigh's 86th wrestling meet versus Navy takes place in Annapolis a mere hour before the Eagles and Saints kick off. After going 4-1 on the west coast for a very successful swing. In EIWA competition, we've owned the Midshipmen, winning our last ten duals against them. Senior heavyweight Paul Weibel and freshman 184 lb David Craig are nationally-ranked and the grapplers to watch on Saturday if you're headed to Annapolis.

More schedule-friendly is the men's basketball team after pulling off two huge wins in league play last week against American (51-49) and Navy (71-61, for the Hawks' first road win of the season). At West Point on Saturday at 1PM, the men take on Army (10-7, 0-2) in a classic trap game on the road. The Knights have two guards in Jarell Brown (17.8 PPG) and Matt Bell (15.5 PPG) that are quite good, and when you multiply that by our road woes, this could be a tougher trip to West Point than some think. If we can avoid the trap on Saturday, we have inconsistent Colgate (6-9, 1-1) to look forward to on Wednesday at Stabler. Still, you can head to West Point and be home it time for the Eagles/Saints (and even catch the women's game to boot).

The Lady Hawks disappointed this week with losses to American (6-11, 1-1) and Navy (6-9, 1-1) putting them at 0-2 on the Patriot League slate. It doesn't get much easier at 3PM at West Point against Army (15-2. 2-0), but Colgate (2-15, 1-1) is an absolute must-win to stay out of the cellar the rest of the year. It's still early, but the Lady Hawks are continuing to be inconsistent.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Lehigh Recruiting Season

It's not all that long ago that a post like this would be just complete and utter speculation about something I knew nothing about. Who's getting recruited for the Lehigh football class of 2011? How the heck would I know? I could say "I want you!", just like this classic Army recruitment poster, but I wouldn't have anything backing up my feelings.

Nowadays, we definitely have more information on possible recruits than ever before, thanks to the "magic of the internet" and the Lehigh message board and websites like scout.com who spend all their time tracking possible college recruits in all sorts of sports. Most of the players on scout.com are commits to the "big boys" like Penn State, Michigan, and, yes, even Boise State. But if you are willing to take the time, you can also get information on recruits that are thinking about Lehigh as a place to continue their education.

Longshots? Hard to say. Superstars? It's way too early to say. But it's valuable information at a time when it's hard to come by, and for thirsty Lehigh fans like myself, any droplets of moisture are welcome. First, let's do a mini-breakdown of what I think Lehigh's needs are, and some of the names that are floating out there in the ether with the Lehigh name attached to them.

Need #1: Defensive Line. Losing two starters (DE Paul Fabre and NT Eric "Big Daddy" Rakus) and one impact player (DL Royce Morgan) means that there is an immediate need for bodies on the defensive line in 2007. With eight returning "D" linemen, not only will it be an interesting spring for Lehigh, it means that freshman will have a real chance to make an impact early in their careers.

Need #2: Sedale's "Heir Apparent". Backup QB Mike Probst graduates this year, and the QB combo of Sedale Threatt and Kevin Marshall graduate next year. We have rising sophomore QBs Jesse Sanchez and Chris Bokosky in the wings, but you can't have too many QBs at your disposal. A third QB might be just what Lehigh needs - and someone who could compete for a starting job in 2008.

Need #3: Beef on the "O" Line. It's my philosophy that you can't have enough bodies in the trenches, and with four seniors graduating on our "O" lines, the need to beef up with a great class of linemen will be crucial. Rising senior (and LFN favorite) OL Jimmy Kehs will anchor the line in 2007, but the other bodies in the trench for this year and beyond are up for grabs.

Need #4: Center & Long Snapper. Laugh if you must, but two of the most important unsung positions are graduating this year - C John Reese and LS Eric Rakus. One of the top priorities in the spring should be finding the new snappers, and a great way for a freshman lineman to make the travel team would be to be either.

Need #5: Running Back Our starting running backs are solid right now with rising juniors Matt McGowan and Josh Pastore, but ask Montana about the importance of having a stable of great running backs in camp. (They lost preseason all-American RB Lex Hilliard in the preseason last year.) Running back depth is key - and we need to have the next great RB in this year's class.

Now that the primary needs have been identified, it's time to share with you some of the names that are floating out there with Lehigh's name attached to them. Remember, this is only speculation at this point - none of these are commits!

QB Cole Hildabrant (Pius X, Bangor, PA) 6'0, 202lbs
Notes: QB coach at Pius X was Lehigh great Phil Stambaugh, also recruited by FBS teams.

QB Chad Cheek (East Ridge HS, Clermont, FL) 6'3, 192lbs
Notes: Speedy QB that is also being pursued by Georgetown and Columbia. Could be an RB?

RB/DB Andrew Cope (Danvile Area SHS, Danville, PA) 5'10, 180 lbs
Notes: Fast back, also pursued by FBS teams.

RB Antonio Walcott (Fort Hamilton HS, Brooklyn, NY) 5'5, 150 lbs
Notes: Prototypical "Ron Jean" back, Fordham & Stony brook are also pursuing him.

RB/OLB Ted Plunkett (Peddie School, Highstown, NJ) 5'10, 180 lbs
Notes: Lafayette is also going after him hard; Towson & FBS teams also in the mix.

WR/DB Anthony DiNaso (Poly Prep CDS, Brooklyn, NY) 5'11, 195 lbs
Notes: Interest from some big FBS schools and Villanova. Has great speed.

C Matt Wierson (Walton HS, Atlanta, GA) 6'1, 245 lbs
Notes: Samford is also in the mix, but at C Wierson could fill a great need.

DE Marcus Richtel (Douglas HS, Castle Rock, CO), 6'1, 220 lbs
Notes: First CO recruit in some time; Colgate, Ivies, and Stanford also in the mix.
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