Saturday, March 08, 2008

Lady Hawks Advance, As Do Many Wrestlers

First, congratulations to the Lady Hawks for enacting some revenge over Lafayette 62-51, avenging two regular-season defeats to the Leopards and advancing to the Patriot League semifinals. At 3:45PM Sunday, the Lady Hawks will take on the *other* team that swept them during the regular season: the Holy Cross Crusaders.

And congratulations to the wrestlers still alive in the EIWA Championships:

Winner's Bracket:
133 lb Seth Ciasulli
149 lb Trevor Chinn
157 lb Dave Nakasone

Lower Bracket:
165 lb Matt Galante
174 lb Alex Caruso
184 lb Manuel Schubert

Lots to root for on Sunday. Should be exciting! And - lo and behond - there is indeed a shot (a long one, but a shot) at six wrestlers at nationals.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Lehigh's Big Weekend On The Road

Saturday and Sunday are packed with Lehigh sports to follow. Although the men's basketball team have been eliminated, the wrestling team is heading to Franklin & Marshall in nearby Lancaster, PA to wrestle in the EIWA championships. The games will be available with live audio from Lehighsports and live internet video from F&M, starting at 10:30AM Saturday with championship and consolation rounds starting 10:30AM Sunday morning.

Historically, Lehigh has been a national power in wrestling and has won a whopping 34 team championships. Lehigh's team, loaded with underclassmen, could be a dark horse for the championship this year, but with daunting Penn and Navy teams in their way it will be a tough go.

As important as the championships will be the opportunity to have Lehigh wrestlers qualify individually for the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, MO later in March. Last year Lehigh qualified seven wrestlers and hope to do so again. This year, Lehigh is hoping to get (most likely) a maximum of six: 133 lb Seth Ciasulli, 149 lb Trevor Chinn, 157 lb Dave Nakasone, 165 lb Mike Galante, 174 lb Alex Caruso, and heavyweight Justin Allen. The only senior here is Nakasone, which bodes well for the future.

The #3 seeded Lady Hawks (17-12, 9-5) hope to emerge from West Point, NY with a chance at the automatic bid to the NCAA Women's Basketball tournament. To do so, they'll have to beat the same Lafayette (14-15, 6-8) team that beat us twice earlier in the season, even though they're the #6 seed. A 7:30PM Saturday start for this Lehigh revenge match will be available on audio from LehighSports and on video through Patriot League all-Access.

With only one senior starter, the key of this game appears to be senior G Kaela Pearce and how she keeps the young team together in this tournament game. She has the experience to settle things down and beat these pesky Leopards. On Sue Troyan's blog she said that the Lady Hawks were uncharacteristic in making mistakes with a whopping 26 turnovers and 35% free throw shooting in their last game against the Leopards, a 59-43 loss. You've got to believe that they'll do a better job tomorrow night.

The key to this game will be defense: the last time out, Lehigh allowed G Cristin Zavocki to run wild on the outside and F Vanessa Van Der Venter to kill them underneath, on the way to having three Leopards scoring in double figures. Keeping the score down (and the turnovers down) will be the key to this game, I think, for the Lady Hawks.

The winner won't have much time to celebrate: should they win, they'll face the winner of the Holy Cross/Navy game at 3:30 Sunday. If Lehigh and Holy Cross both win, it would set up a very interesting second "revenge" matchup for the Lady Hawks who fell twice to the Crusaders during the regular season.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

As Men's Basketball Ends, Another Door Opens

As the season of the men's basketball team ended with a thud in a 64-61 overtime loss - again - to Army, an announcement from a mid-major basketball powerhouse concerning my favorite sport at Lehigh - football.

Drake announced today that they will be traveling to Murray Goodman Stadium to be our home opener this year. Drake, out of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, last year became the first-ever Division I non-scholarship team to beat a fully funded FCS scholarship team when they beat Illinois State 27-24 in their season opener last year.

"We are excited about going to Bethlehem, Pa. to play one of the great Division FCS programs in this country," said first-year Drake coach Chris Creighton. "We are also happy to announce that Lehigh will be coming here to Des Moines in 2010."

Teams from the PFL have made great strides recently, with Dayton ruining the homecoming of last year's Patriot League Champion Fordham 31-24 , so it should be more of a challenge that it might appear to some. Don't be fooled by the moniker "non-scholarship". That means a lot less than it used to.

Looks like a good game to kick things off this year, and finally Lehigh will be able to announce their 11 game schedule for 2008 - hopefully soon.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Men's Basketball: Revenge On Their Minds?

It's a ticket to the Big Dance. And every Patriot League team has a shot at keeping their hopes alive as the first round of the Patriot League conference tournament kicks off tonight.

#4 Lehigh will be hosting #5 Army, and if you're in the Lehigh Valley you can catch the game on Service Electric 2 or on AM 1230/1320 ESPN Radio. If you're out of the area, you can catch the game on Lehigh Broadcast or on Patriot League All-Access for a small fee.

For Lehigh's men's basketball team, it may as well be a return to the "scene of the crime".

Last year, Lehigh was robbed in Stabler in the first round against - you guessed it - Army.

Freshman Josh Miller made a running bank shot after the buzzer sounded (as video from Lehigh's Web site, lehighsports.com, showed) that lifted Army to a 47-46 win over Lehigh in the Patriot League tournament quarterfinals at Stabler Arena. Lehigh coach Billy Taylor, more animated than ever, said he planned to appeal.

''We have to fight the fight because it was clearly after the light went off, so we are going to continue to fight until they say we can't anymore, and then we'll fight some more,'' Taylor said.

...

It was the only Lehigh home game this year against a Patriot League opponent that Service Electric TV2 did not broadcast. Therefore, officials Jeff Smith, Jeff Bryant and Jack Sweeney did not have television video to review.

But Lehigh officials were willing to let them review their online video.

''There was at a courtside monitor at the table,'' Taylor said. ''The officials did not review it. They left the court.''

This year there will be no such controversy - after all, SE2 is picking up the game and will have a video replay available if necessary. But the resulting brouhaha left a bad taste in everyone's mouths, and you can bet it's very clear in the mind of senior F Bryan White and he will be reminding everyone about the incident before the game.

You can also bet that White will be a little bit pumped up that he didn't make the all-Patriot League team despite the fact he led the league in rebounding with 8.1 boards per game. Out of nineteen "slots of honor", an incredible seventeen were taken up by guards (including second-team all-Patriot sophomore G Marquis Hall and freshman of the year in freshman G Rob Keefer). In fact, the entire second-team all-Patriot Team was taken up by six guards... You're trying to tell me that Navy G Greg Sprink's teammate in the backcourt was more valuable than White this year?

Both Lehigh and Army are entering the tournament reversing their late-season slides with two big wins - both teams beat Bucknell, while Army beat Lafayette and Lehigh disposed of Holy Cross. Army has struggled to put the ball in the basket despite the presence of senior G Jarell Brown (18.5 PPG): in their last 15 games they scored more than 60 points only 4 times. They've won a fair number of games, though, with defense: they won six games during that stretch, including a sweep of Bucknell and a win over Navy.

Lehigh's key to the game will be getting just one of their young guards to have a great game. Hall almost singlehandedly took over in the must-win last Friday against Holy Cross, but either if Hall, Keefer, or junior G Matt Szalachowski can emerge with good scoring punch tonight, I like our chances. Keeping out of foul trouble underneath, with White or sophomore F Zahir Carrington, will also be crucial.

The winner of this game will either be travelling to Washington, DC to take on American - or entertaining Holy Cross once again. If there were ever a year where the #1 seed needs to be extra-vigilant, it's this year of parity in the Patriot League.

The madness starts tonight for Patriot League fans. And I can't wait.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Marist, We Hardly Knew Ye

Every once in a while I like to talk about Patriot League expansion, especially in terms of football. With eight basketball members and seven football-playing members (including two, Fordham and Georgetown, who are in the league only in football), I think expansion of the league ought to be one of its top priorities.

To that end, I had proposed Marist as a very solid candidate in Patriot League expansion in all sports. Marist appeared to fit the bill as a Patriot League school as a small, high-academic private school; its non-scholarship football program had played a lot of football against Patriot League opponents; its conference, the MAAC, finally ceased to exist for football last year; and its men's and women's basketball programs promised to provide great respect for the Patriot League from years to come. (Last year, Marist's women's basketball team proceeded to make the Sweet 16, and have parked themselves in the Top 25 nationally this year.)

Last Friday, Marist made a decision on football that didn't involve the Patriot League.

They chose instead to join the Pioneer Football League, or PFL, to continue playing non-scholarship football at the Division I level while remaining in the MAAC in all other sports.

A link to the video of the full press conference can be found below:



Marist Athletic Director Tim Murray:

"I would say over the last 18 months or so, we have been studying - internally and externally - what the opportunities were, and we will continue to do that because [the landscape] is ever-changing. We analyzed, and we spent a lot of time looking at the program, and we felt at this time the Pioneer Football League is the most appropriate step at this time.

...

"We looked at all conferences [for affiliation]. The NEC and their scholarship model which they've embraced was not consistent with our institutional philosophy, so we felt that wasn't the right mix. We would love to be aligned with schools like the Patriot League and the Ivy League and schools of that academic and athletic reputation, but those opportunities at this point weren't necessarily available to us and maybe that changes down the road."

I don't blame Marist for choosing to join the PFL, a truly national conference which stretches from California (University of San Diego) to Florida (Jacksonville Universiy) to (now) Poughkeepsie, New York. Head football coach Jim Parady in particular was beaming, talking about national recruiting and a "real league schedule" - and after being in the MAAC, which had been dying for years, it must have been a huge breath of fresh air. (In a moment that summed up their MAAC experience to a T, as AD Tim Murray was talking about the MAAC, the microphone tailed off slowly and died.)

But it's hard not to watch the press conference and sense a tinge of disappointment in Tim Murray's voice about not going to the Patriot League. He even keeps his options open by saying "maybe that changes down the road".

But should Tim Murray hold his breath?

Personally I am baffled as to why Marist wasn't given more serious consideration in joining the Patriot League. If you look at Marist, it seems almost exactly like the type of institution that the league should be clamoring to sign up. Small private school: check. Selectivity that's the same as Holy Cross: check. Good master's program (14th in the nation): check. Willing to play ball with the academic index: check. Gives a possible place for other MAAC teams to jump, and maybe restart football: check. Upgraded football facilities: check.

But - yet again - Marist just didn't seem to be good enough for inclusion by the Patriot League presidents.

What was the problem?
Was it the fact that the Patriot League is planning to make a move towards athletic scholarships in football - something that Murray said was "not consistent with their institutional philosophy"?

Was it about television markets? That Marist's position in Poughkeepsie, NY was in a broadcast TV "dead zone"?

Or was it that it wasn't enough that they were marksmen, biathletes and part of the Norwegian underground - they had to be nuclear scientists, too? Was it simply that the League and the presidents felt it was simply better to wait around to get somebody "better", even though on paper Marist has exactly the criteria that has been publicly shared for inclusion in the Patriot League?

We may never know the real reason for sure. But the one thing that is for sure is that if the League is waiting around for "someone better", it's not at all clear that it's going to happen in our lifetimes.

Who's Left?
Some folks may hope that a breakup of the Atlantic 10 may cause a team or two to fall in our laps.

Unfortunately for us, the best match of all - Fordham - is already in the league as an associate member in football, and the league's late embrace of basketball scholarships came too late to see the Rams' basketball program jump ship to the A-10. If they were to state they were going back to the Patriot League in all sports, there might be a mutiny (even though the fans shouldn't - they would be coming back the vision of Patriot League they wanted all along, with scholarships in basketball).

The next best match - Richmond - saw a mutiny in 2005 concerning the mere sniff of joining the Patriot League in football only. It's hard to see what has changed since then to think that another one might happen (even though, like Fordham, they would most likely be going to a Patriot League with scholarships in basketball and possibly football).

The final Atlantic 10 school that could go to the Patriot League - St. Bonaventure - doesn't currently play football, and doesn't have as impressive an academic profile as Marist (on paper, anyway).

After that - who's left in terms of football schools? VMI isn't only located very deep in the South -- making them quite far-flung from the rest of the league -- they haven't proven to be competitive for years in football in the SoCon or Big South - and now in the Big South conference where Winthrop appears to be a real threat to make some good runs in the NCAA basketball tournament for years to come, what's their incentive to leave that conference?

As for folks who think Villanova and Georgetown are ever going to give up their affiliation to the cash cow that is the Big East to join the Patriot League in all sports, that's just crazy talk. Nobody would give up that money. No. Bod. Y.

Start-Ups?
Could a team who's not currently playing Division I football join the Patriot League break ranks and join the Patriot League? There are only two semi-plausible candidates.

One is Boston University, who controversially buried football in 1997. In theory, they could restart football - but frankly, there simply doesn't seem to be a huge groundswell of support. And would it be realistically plausible for the Terriers to leave America East for the Patriot League?

Independent NJIT seems to also be shopping for conference affiliation and appears to have some groundswell for football too - but again, their academic profile pales in comparison to Marist's, and that was before their disastrous 0-29 season in men's basketball this year. (Think Marist's basketball teams would be an improvement over that?)

Division I Promotion?
That takes care of the realistic Division I targets. But what about sub-division I schools? Well, one nice candidate in Rhode Island-based Bryant jumped right to the NEC and didn't even wait to finish their first year of transition to Division I. If the Patriot League was thinking about it, the NEC just went ahead and did it.

Other similarly-situated schools - Bentley out of Waltham, or the Coast Guard in Connecticut - don't seem like ideal candidates either. Waltham's awfully close to Worcester, where Holy Cross is located, and if Poughkeepsie, NY isn't a broadcast TV hotbed, I doubt New London, CT is going to rake in the bucks, either.

Johns Hopkins? Another perfect school... that doesn't seem to want to go anywhere as long as their lacrosse program can compete for national titles in Division I. Gettysburg? They don't seem willing or able to jump to Division I.

So what's the strategy of the Patriot League presidents? Wait for the Ivy League to break up? Because it's looking more and more that the only "acceptable" schools that could join the Patriot League are playing in the Ancient Eight.

That's not a strategy. That's a recipe for waiting, waiting, and more waiting, while the league hisses away, until you can't hear it anymore in the press conference.

Sound familiar?
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