Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Beating Rutgers Makes This the Greatest Week Ever?

No, Virginia, Rutgers forward Corey Chandler's blank stare right here isn't from Lehigh's huge upset win today.

But after Lehigh's 76-71 victory the day before Turkey Day, I sure can picture Chandler's face looking like this after this game.

You thought this was a typo? Lehigh men's basketball team beating Rutgers? Big East Rutgers? The Scarlet "We Last Lost to the Engineers.. In 1967" Knights?

It's not a typo. Lehigh did indeed beat a Big East team for the first time since joining the Patriot League. The Mountain Hawks won at Rutgers for the first time since 1962.

John Feinstein, is Lehigh a wrestling school?

How on this Good Green Earth did Lehigh do it? Normally, a "smaller" team wins a game over a power conference team by shooting lights-out - but Lehigh only shot just around 40% from the field. Instead, Lehigh won it by matching the bigger Scarlet Knight team rebound for rebound - with junior G Marquis Hall nabbing 15 of Lehigh's 44 boards on the night. (For those scoring at home, he got more than a third of Lehigh's rebounds in the game. And no, he's still a guard.)

In fact, the more you look at Hall's performance, the more amazing it looks - playing 36 out of 40 minutes, 28 points, 5 assists. Turnovers? Zero.

Against Rutgers. Don't forget - against Rutgers of the Big East.

He wasn't the only ironman, either. Junior F Zahir Carrington added 15 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocks in 30 minutes, senior F Phil Anderson notched 10 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 30 minutes, and junior G Dave Buchburger got 12 points and 5 rebouinds in 30 minutes, too. Turnovers? Only eight as a team - and only a grand total of two from the four "thirty-minute men".

What's the world coming to? Lehigh beating "that school in Easton" in football? Lehigh's wrestling team opening the season by upending two nationally-ranked teams? Both Mountain Hawks basketball teams with over .500 records?

No, really. Could this be the greatest week ever?

It will be for me - until my wife, a Rutgers grad, realizes Lehigh beat the Scarlet Knights this night.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Patriot League All-League Teams Include Nine Mountain Hawks

The good news keeps pouring in for Lehigh, as the Patriot League announced their all-League team for 2008, and the list included seven first-team players and two second-team players.  

Both the offensive player of the year and defensive player of the year were - for the first time ever -  repeat selections.   Both Holy Cross senior QB Dominic Randolph  and "That school in Easton"'s senior LB Andy Romans (who cheap-shotted sophomore QB J.B. Clark on the final play of the game last Saturday) were player of the year selections in 2007.

In addition, Colgate freshman RB Nate Eachus showed up on the Patriot League first-team and also won freshman of the year honors - the last time that was done was, well, when Colgate senior RB Jordan Scott did the honors in 2004.  

Both of these Raiders, of course, haven't finished their season: they're playing at Villanova in the first round of the FCS playoffs, thanks to their 28-27 victory over Holy Cross this weekend.  As for the Crusaders - their big question is going to be: will their senior QB Randolph stay with Holy Cross with a medical redshirt that is available to him to try to get a Patriot League title - or will he try to a shot in the NFL?

Lehigh Athletics gives us more detail on who was selected on the Mountain Hawks:
The Mountain Hawks had seven selections on the First-Team, including five members of its defense, which led the Patriot League in sacks, and ranked second in scoring defense and rushing defense.  The seven First-Teamers were the second most in the Patriot League, behind only league champion Colgate’s eight selections.
Even more encouraging for Lehigh fans is the fact that three of the seven first-teamers will be back next year, and one member of the second team.  One of those players, junior LB Matt Cohen, led the Patriot League in sacks (with 6 1/2), tackles for loss (an eye-popping 17), and tied for the lead interceptions (3) with a returning player on the list, junior DB/PR Jarard Cribbs (who also led the Patriot League in passes defended and punt return yardage).

Another returning Mountain Hawk, LFN fave junior DL B.J. Benning, was second in the league in sacks with 6 and showed himself to be a dominating interior lineman.  And the fourth, sophomore OL William Rackley, started 11 games last year at right tackle and promises to be a linchpin on this "O" line for the next two years.

The full list of Lehigh honorees are:

First team Offense:
Sophomore OL William Rackley

First Team Defense:
Junior DL B. J. Benning
Senior DL Brian Jackson
Junior LB Matt Cohen
Senior LB Tim Diamond
Senior DB Quadir Carter
Senior P/K Jason Leo

Second Team Offense:
Senior OL Kevin Bayani

Second Team Defense:
Sophomore DB Jarard Cribbs


Monday, November 24, 2008

Monday's Word: Thesaurus

It's two days later and the words are flowing easily. I don't need to check a "thesaurus", but I will anyway. It's blissful. Cheerful. Chipper. Delighted. Ecstatic. Gleeful. Joyous. Merry. Overjoyed.

And if I feel this way, imagine how ecstatic the players are. I think the face of senior WR Mike "Cris Carter" Fitzgerald just says in all in this photo from Lehigh Athletics.

But what really struck me in the emotion around the Lehigh sideline and with the fans rushing the field was how important this game really felt to those fans.

I got razzed by a lot of Lafayette fans when I said to them that "The Rivalry" meant everything to them, and when Lehigh was beating Lehigh on a regular basis in the late '90s that the game largely seemed like an afterthought. But it was undeniably true. Lafayette was talking about demoting the team to D-III and had an aging stadium with wooden bleachers that dated from the Eisenhour administration. Lehigh was talking about making deep runs in the playoffs and finding a way to win games against James Madison and Furman.

When Lafayette won "The Rivalry" in 2002, they were starving for a win and it was extremely important to them to finally beat Lehigh. When they did, it was a win that helped propel them to their great success in 2004, 2005 and 2006 down the road. It was a win to prove that they belonged; that they weren't a D-III school. In a way, that 2002 victory helped propel the changes they've made to improve everything about their program: the state-of-the-art field house, the new scoreboard, the refurbishment of the seating.

This win for Lehigh this time was not like Lafayette's in 2002. For the troubles that the program has had, Lehigh did not sink to the depths that Lafayette did only in the sense that at no time did Lehigh think of dropping down to D-III.

But it felt no less important. Lehigh simply had to get the Easton monkey off their backs - that pressure that seemed to enclose this team like a vise not only this year but in previous years. Four games were lost in the last five minutes of the game this year, including two on the last play of the game. You wondered if this team would ever be able to win a close, pressure-filled game like "The Rivalry". You wondered if this team would be able to hold itself together, pick itself up, and be able to win a game like this.

I had my doubts, let me tell you. Not only from the four close losses this year, but those four straight losses in "The Rivalry", too. Years of replaying the Jonathan Hurt catch, the crushing two years ago, the last-minute drive from last year. How could one team overcome this, well, bad psyche going into the last game of the year?

But they did. They kept it together even when they fell out of contention for the Patriot League championship. And, as I've been saying all year, they finally "learned how to win" in the biggest game of the year.

And as a happy side result, it finally put a stop to the infighting among the Lehigh fans.

Now Lehigh fans are already buzzing about the potential for next year - how sophomore QB J.B. Clark will perform as a junior. How sophomore DB John "Fear Itself" Kennedy might be a guy to anchor our secondary now that two seniors graduate in the defensive backfield. Folks are already looking at the 2009 schedule. You almost wish that there was an eleven game spring season just so we can see this team suit it up again.

There's something called optimism in this fan base now - optimism that hasn't been there since coach Coen first came to Lehigh, or when QB Sedale Threatt helped to upset Villanova in 2006. Fans have been waiting for a win like this since 2006.

"I wish I was coming back for another year because now that I know we can play like this, we're a force to be reckoned with," senior DL Brian Jackson said in the post-game press conference, echoing what a lot of fans must feel, too. Lehigh will miss Jackson, senior LB Tim Diamond and a host of seniors - that, lest we forget, all made huge plays on Sautrday and now need to be replaced.

Yet with all the optimism, it's easy to get carried away.

When asking Clark about what he takes into the offseason, he told me that he considers next year to be "starting from scratch." And he's right; Clark's No. 1 and No. 2 targets will be graduating, as the No. 1 runningback and three starting "O" linemen. But he said it with a smile on his face as big as all of the outdoors, clutching the Lehigh/Lafayette MVP trophy as if I were going to try to wrestle it from him right there and now.

Talking to coach Coen after the press conference, he mentioned specifically that even though the win is great and that Lehigh had such success this Saturday, "we're still a 5-6 team." Lehigh still has a long - long! - way to go to be considered in the same breath as those great teams from 1979, 1986, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2001 - and coach Coen, more than anybody, knows it.

Not to say coach Coen wasn't ecstatic about winning. He gave a grin to Keith Groller of the Morning Call and myself as big as I've ever seen. But he clearly doesn't see this win as the end of the work he has ahead.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pictures from The 144th "Rivalry"

They're up in my Webshots gallery now here, but I'd like to share my favorite as well. Check out the TD catch by senior WR Nick Johnson.

Oh yeah. I'm baskin'.

[UPDATE: There are tons more photos online, too. Check out the gallery from the Easton Express-Times, the gallery from the Allentown Morning Call, and a great selection of shots from the postgame celebration from the official Lehigh Athletics site.]
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