Friday, November 30, 2007

Lehigh Sports Happenings, Nov. 30th-Dec 6th

When you start to write about college football year round, you start to realize that football talk never truly dies, it just dies down a little until the next big event (postseason accolades, the FCS playoffs, recruiting season, Spring football, the NFL draft). But in the winter, there's other big sporting events at Lehigh in the winter - especially something else I enjoy: college basketball (men's and women's). In the long stretch of time when there's no football games on Saturdays, like last year I like to highlight the upcoming events for the winter sports I enjoy and other folks love as well. Without any further ado, here's what is coming up this weekend, and the coming week.

Men's Basketball (2-3) (Sagarin: 253)
12/1 at Central Connecticut State (1-5) (Sagarin: 245)
12/5 STONY BROOK (0-6) (Sagarin: 314)

The Mountain Hawks lost a close double-overtime game to Quinnipiac 92-88 this Wednesday at Stabler as a respectable 649 fans showed up on a weekday to see exactly who Lehigh's young guns are. The returning freshman of the year, sophomore PG Marquis Hall (27 points, 7 assists) continues to shine, while senior F Bryan White (14 points, 8 rebounds) and sophomore F Zahir Carrington (23 points) did everything they could to win. But the difference ended up being on the boards: the Bobcats out-rebounded us 53-38 on the night, which probably was the difference.

With a very young team (White is the only senior) and a budding superstar in Hall, look for improvement this week as Lehigh faces two very winnable games. If next week I'm talking about a 4-3 team, perhaps some eyebrows around the league may start raising about these Mountain Hawks.

Women's Basketball (1-3) (Sagarin: 216)
11/30 at North Florida (Sagarin: 279)
12/2 at Jacksonville (Sagarin: 143)
12/5 LIU (Sagarin: 157)

You might think that the lady Hawks might be struggling with a 1-3 record: until you see exactly who head coach Sue Troyan has been up against in St Joe's (Sag: 82), Princeton (Sag:226), and Syracuse (Sag: 124). Still, the Lady Hawks have had problems scoring as freshman G Erica Prosser is the leading scorer with 9.8 PPG (and is a perfect 13-for-13 from the foul line), with junior F/C Melissa Rich not far behind with 8.8 PPG (and 22 rebounds). Lehigh is still waiting for sophomore F Wendy Szerbiak to appear in a game, who unfortunately seems to have inherited her famous NBA brother Wally's propensity for injuries.

Unfortunately, the "early season from hell" continues with one very winnable game (tonight at North Florida) and two awfully tough games versus Jacksonville and LIU. On the bright side, the weather calls for 70 degree sunny days for the Lady Hawks. Might be a good time to get some sun before heading back to frigid Bethlehem.

Wrestling (2-4)
11/30 RUTGERS (Grace Hall)
12/2 at Maryland, at American

The game notes point out that Rutgers is "rebuilding", but Lehigh's struggling wrestling team is hoping they've righted the ship after an embarassing 39-0 shutout versus Central Michigan, with two duals victories versus Binghamton (35-10) and Clarion (21-15). Only four seniors dot the roster, while it's hard to pinpoint exactly who the leader is on this team. Junior captain Matt Fisk hasn't wrestled all year, while freshman Alex Caruso (174 lbs) may the closest thing to a consistent winner the grapplers have seen, winning three of his last four bouts including one fall.

The grapplers will have their hands full this week. I'd consider a win against Rutgers and American an extremely successful week, with a loss to nationally-ranked Maryland on the road a probability. But don't be surprised to see an 1-2 or a dreaded 0-3 week here.

Monday, November 26, 2007

2007 Season In Review

What Went Right
When Lehigh won in 2006 against our tougher opponents, it involved our defense getting turnovers. Our 20-13 win versus Ivy League Champion Harvard was won after junior LB Tim Diamond stripped the ball from Harvard quarterback Chris Pizzotti and junior DL Paul Bode rumbled the ball into the end zone for the win. Similarly, senior DB Brannan Thomas' two interceptions were the difference in Lehigh's early 32-21 victory over last year's Ivy League co-Champions Princeton.

On defense, we found our biggest playmaker on defense in Diamond. He would finish the year with 107 tackles. 2 1/2 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 3 recovered fumbles, and that aforementioned game-winning strip. Junior DL Brian Jackson also had a great year with 63 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks, and another standout was sophomore LB Matt Cohen with a team-leading 13 tackles for loss including three sacks.

Another part of the team that really shined was special teams. Thomas' 54 yard punt return for a touchdown was a big part of the Harvard win, while a big question mark going into the year at kick returner was answered by true freshman KR John Kennedy, who ended the year with 1,087 return yards. Junior P Jason Leo shined on the punt team, averaging 42.1 yards per punt with an amazing 19 of them inside the 20, while the punt and kickoff return units were incredibly solid, allowing no punt or kick blocks all year.

Finally, this year allowed many underclassmen to get valuable game experience as well.
Although all the true freshmen that had playing time did have struggles at times, all of them showed real flashes that these are the kids that should be in the starting lineup. Freshman OL William Rackley, freshman OL Ricky Clerge, freshman WR Travis Artim, freshman RB Kwesi Kankam, freshman RB Jaren Walker, freshman TE Alex Wojdowski, and freshman DT Phil Winnett are only the freshmen I've listed that look like they could find themselves starting next year as sophomores, alongside a slew of rising juniors. *All* of these guys proved they can dominate the lesser teams of the league and also play against Colgate and Lafayette. That's great promise for 2008.

What Went Wrong
Start with strength and conditioning. A never-before-seen string of injuries to the running backs, quarterback, and receivers meant all year Lehigh struggled offensively, which is highly uncharacteristic of Lehigh football teams.

Before the season had a single snap, both junior RB Matt McGowan and junior RB Josh Pastore were battling leg injuries, and every week of the 2007 season it was a guessing game to find out which backs were going to be healthy enough to suit up. The inconsistency back there infected the entire offense and caused the offense to constantly out of rhythm. Although the freshmen Kankam and Walker did start and played well in flashes, one week a freshman would be the leading rusher, and the other week he wouldn't get a single carry. I wonder if we would have had more consistency running if we had stuck with one guy - even if that guy was a freshman - for a longer period.

Similarly, senior QB Sedale Threatt struggled with injuries to his shoulder and ribs, and by the end of the year he was a "run-first, pass-third" quarterback. His heart and competitiveness never were in question: in each and every game you'd see him forging forward for those extra yards on the ground even when he really didn't have an arm, and in the latter half of the year, splitting time with sophomore QB Chris Bokosky, he actually also lined up as a receiver.

The QB situation, in this reporters opinion, should have been handled differently. By not spelling out that Threatt had any injuries, more grist was given to his detractors who demanded that he needed to be benched. When it became clear that he was playing hurt and it was affecting the team, they still went with Threatt until we suffered the humiliating defeat to Holy Cross. Then, by making Threatt a part-time quarterback and still not being upfront about his injury problems, it made it seem like the team was caving to public opinion rather than giving Bokosky a vote of confidence. As it stood, we ended the year with a two-headed quarterback with no consistent rhythm or confidence from either quarterback. If the coyness about the QB situation was done to gain some sort of advantage, it didn't work.

As a result of the inconsistency at QB, the receiving corps never was able to really gel very well as a unit, although the injury to senior WR Pete Donchez didn't help one iota. The lack of a go-to playmaker emerging from this bunch was another big factor of the offensive struggles.

Another was the struggle the freshmen faced in pass and run protection on the "O" line. Basically, every phase of the offense showed flashes of good play, and also showed real struggles.

We'll never know how good this offense might have been with a healthy unit. But with a unit filled with freshmen and sophmores, it's hard to judge an "Andy Coen" offense since we really didn't have one all year. Next year we should have a much better idea of what this offense is capable of.

On defense injuries also played a major factor in limiting senior DB Brannan Thomas, our go-to cornerback. What was supposed to be our biggest strength ended up being a weakness, ending up with only 3 interceptions from our defensive backfield all year (all by Thomas) and giving up almost 200 yards passing a game.

Our kicking game also featured frustrating inconsistency, with junior K Jason Leo only hitting 11 of 18 kicks on the year, including some big misses.

Questions Going Into The Spring
1. QB. Three quarterbacks remain on the roster in 2008: Bokosky, who will be a junior, and freshmen Trace Cisneros and J.B. Clark who will be sophomores. Who will get the vote of confidence from the coaching staff? It will be a very interesting spring to see who emerges as the starter.
2. DB. The entire starting defensive backfield graduates, which leaves junior FS Brendan VanAckeren, junior SS Quadir Carter, and sophomore CB Jesse Sanchez to be likely candidates to step up to starting positions. But there will undoubtedly be spots in this unit that will be up for grabs. Who will step up?
3. "O" line. C John Reese and T Jimmy Kehs graduate. Who steps up to grab these line spots? Might we se even more freshmen in these key spots as well in 2008, just like in 2007?
4. Playmakers. We have a few guys on this team that simply make plays, but I want to see more of those guys that will be making plays in 2008 in this spring game. I don't care if you're too small, to slow, whatever: if you can make plays, you'd be on my team.

It was not an easy 5-6 year for Lehigh. The humiliating 59-10 loss to Holy Cross made me question everything about the direction of the program and the quality of the athletes on the field. But the lack of fight shown in that game never reared its ugly head again. Even with the loss to Lafayette, Lehigh showed a lot of fight and emotion the rest of the way and very nearly pulled off the victory. It's hard to talk about a loss to Lafayette as a "moral victory", but it did show enough to convince me that things are still on the right track for 2008.

There are some very hopeful signs of life for 2008 with a young, feisty unit (and coaching staff) that clearly learned from the Holy Cross loss and (I feel) will also learn from the Lafayette loss as well. The transitions on this team to a different defense and a different offense were never going to be seamless, while the special teams units have already has produced real benefits.

In 2008, the hope is that a new quarterback will be able to step in with (finally) a healthy backfield in a completely injury-free preseason. From there, they will build on the strength of the team - a very good, young defense and a very good special teams unit and challenge for another Patriot League title.


Stay tuned this coming month for: Lehigh Football Nation's Hawks Of The Year; The Challenge To Donate To The Athletics Partnership; And The Weekly report on Lehigh's Winter Sports, including Men's and Women's basketball
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