Friday, December 05, 2008

Lehigh Sports Weekend: A Very Busy Friday

Since it's still college football season for me (as evidenced by my new poll asking readers for their vote for LFN Player of the Year, my open letter to NCAA President Myles Brand, and my preview of FCS games this weekend, including the playoff quarterfinal games), I haven't had much of a chance to do much hyping of the Lehigh winter sports that I enjoy so much.

But while I was busy, Lehigh's wrestling team was - shall we say - busy.

Busy resurrecting themselves as a national program. As EIWA title contenders. Maybe even rising from the ashes to make some serious noise this March in the NCAA Championships, too.

Lehigh has gone from being unranked starting the year from going an amazing 8-0 in the early going all the way to a No. 10 Intermat ranking. That included an utter 41-3 domination of Princeton. A win over No. 9 Michigan. And last weekend, it meant an upset win over No. 7 Oklahoma State in the Northeast Duals to give the Lehigh wrestlers a perfect 8-0 mark.

That's right. A perfect record. Thanks to a perfect 8-0 record by senior 149 lb Trevor Chinn and identical 6-1 records by junior 165 lb Mike Galante and junior 184 lb David Craig - Lehigh wrestling once again is amongst the elite programs in the nation.

This weekend, the grapplers are in Las Vegas to compete in the Las Vegas Invitational. Not since 2001 has a Lehigh wrestler won at this event - but this year, where every week has proven to be filled with pleasant surprises, who knows?

That highlights a very busy Friday. What other events grace the schedule?

Women's Basketball (Record: 5-2: Real-Time RPI: 169):
7:00 P.M. 12/5 Friday, Bethlehem, PA vs. Bryant (Record: 3-4: Real-Time RPI: N/A)
1:00 P.M. 12/7 Sunday Villanova, PA vs. Villanova (Record: 3-4: Real-Time RPI: 166)

Two very winnable games for the Lady Hawks, including one against a D-I transitional team in Bryant (out of Rhode Island) that might be tougher than you think.

Men's Basketball (Record: 5-2: Real-Time RPI: 181)
7:00 P.M. 12/5 Friday, Stony Brook, NY vs. Stony Brook (Record: 3-3: Real-Time RPI: 301)
7:00 P.M. 12/8 Monday, Bethlehem, PA vs. Albany (Record: 5-2: Real-Time RPI: 47)

It doesn't get any easier for the Mountain Hawks this week. You can't overlook the Seawolves, and for basketball fans who know their stuff, the game versus Albany should prove to be a great litmus test as to how far along the basketball team realy is.

Should be a great weekend! Most of these events can be seen or heard through LehighSports.Com.

(All RPI calculations are figured out using http://www.realtimerpi.com.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Brian Jackson Is MVP of The 144th (According to Readers)

While Lehigh's men's basketball's 77-64 loss to St. Joe's yesterday was no moral victory, it does bring back into focus the big victory from before Thanksgiving: Lehigh's win in the 144th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette. And you, the readers of the blog, have spoken.

According to you, the MVP of the 144th is none other than senior DL Brian Jackson. In the biggest game of the year, he came up with his best day as a Mountain Hawk: 8 tackles with 3 1/2 sacks for 19 yards lost. His pass rush - against, mind you, a powerful Leopard "O" line - was a key reason that Lafayette's offense never got on track against us. His final game as a Mountain Hawk is one that definitely deserves the honors bestowed upon him by you, the readers.

Game balls for the 144th:

Reader's Choice: Senior DL Brian Jackson

Offense: (tie) Sophomore QB J.B. Clark (12/22 passing, 201 yards, 2 TDs), senior WR Sekou Yansane (3 catches, 56 yards, including one ESPN SportsCenter highlight catch) and senior WR Mike "Cris Carter" Fitzgerald (5 catches, 101 yards, 1 TD)

Defense: (tie) Senior LB Tim Diamond (11 tackles, putting him at over 100 on the year), senior DB Brendan VanAckeren (9 tackles) and senior DB Quadir Carter (8 tackles)

Special Teams: (tie) Senior P/K Jason Leo (7 punts for 42.9 yard average, including a 59 yarder plus a 40 ayrd FG) and sophomore KR/DB John "Fear Itself" Kennedy (72 yards of kickoff returns - plus the game-sealing interception return for a TD)

Congratulations to all the winners... and look for a vote tomorrow for "Hawks of the Year".

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

St. Joe's Hawks Swoop Into Bethlehem

(Photo Credit: The Cincinnati Enquirer)

Mercifully, our Mountain Hawk doesn't attempt to flap his wings during every minute of every half during men's basketball games.

Though hopefully our Mountain Hawk will be, let's just say, around the "other" flapping Hawk for some serious mocking action at 7:00 p.m. tonight at Stabler Arena as St. Joe's swoop in for the biggest men's basketball game in Stabler in years.

Normally, I wouldn't be advocating that our Lehigh men's basketball team mock anybody, never mind in December. But after a torrid 5-1 start - including a win over Rutgers of the Big East, capping off the most successful November Run in Lehigh men's basketball history - you can say quite resoundingly that the Mountain Hawks have earned the right to trash talk.

(Although this game could be hazardous to my health. I've already talked too much trash to my wife, a Rutgers alumna, about the Hawks' win over the Scarlet Knights. What if Lehigh also beat St. Joe's, the school that my father-in-law went to? I'd have to wear kevlar to Christmas dinner.)

Could Lehigh (5-1, RPI 125) do the unthinkable and also beat a team from the Atlantic 10 in St. Joe's (2-3, RPI 137) to start off the year? At home, Lehigh has a real chance to do just that - and against a team that not long ago was the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, too.

(Side note: Ever for a million years think St. Joe's head coach Phil Martelli (now in his 14th year with the Hawks) looked at this game on the schedule and said, See, troops? This is the game that will improve your GPI! I didn't think so.)

The Hawks have played a brutal schedule to start the year, and have somewhat of a jumbled record. Unlike Lehigh, they beat Rider at home (69-57), and also drilled perennial NCAA Tournament team Indiana (80-54). But they lost to another Patriot League team this year in Holy Cross (73-69) and lost to two power conference teams in Alabama (58-48) and Texas (68-50). Those last two games were at the Maui Invitational last week, and the Hawks have just enjoyed a five-day layoff from those brutal games.

First and foremost, key to a Lehigh victory would be something that hasn't been a big factor in Lehigh men's basketball in recent years - a large, vocal, involved crowd packed with students. If we get an intimate weekday gathering of 500 well-wishers, that ain't cutting it. If we can get a loud 1,500-2,000 in Stabler tonight, the Mountain Hawks will stand a good chance of winning.

We'll also need yet another solid gold performance from our emerging inside-outside combo of junior F Zahir Carrington (14.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and junior G Marquis Hall (14.5 ppg, 4.3 assists pg). Both will need to be in solid double-digits to have a chance - but with St. Joe's solid perimeter defense (only allowing 28.6% from 3-point range) - it's Hall who might struggle to reach 10 points.

They'll have their hands full, though, against what ought to be a powerful inside-outside combination from St. Joe's with forward Ahmad Nivins (18.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and guards Darin Govens (13.8 ppg, 42.4% 3-pointers) and Tasheed Carr (13.2 ppg, 43.9% 3-pointers). If Govens and Carr get hot from the 3 point line, it could be a really long night. However, Lehigh has been making Stabler arena a palace of defense lately: in their last seven games at home, they've held every opponent to under 70 points.

One place where Lehigh might have a slight advantage is on the boards. With Hall and Carrington, senior F Phil Anderson is also averaging over 5 rebounds a game (6.5). Winning the battle on the boards could be the difference in the game for the Mountain Hawks.

One thing's for sure: if you can't be there in person (and it should be the best non "Rivalry"-themed basketball game in Stabler in years), you can check it out on Service Electric 2 in the Lehigh Valley, FCS Atlantic nationally, or watch the streaming game online courtesy of Lehigh Sports.com.

I can't wait!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Wildcats Whomp Patriot League Champion

(Photo Credit: Laurence Kesterson/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Officially, the Patriot League football season doesn't end the week before Thanksgiving. That's because the Patriot League champion participates in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs every year.

This weekend, however, it sure felt like it ended seven days earlier.

Patriot League champs Colgate got throttled 55-28 in a game that wasn't even as competitive as this final score indicated.

The FCS playoffs for the Patriot League have traditionally resulted in some thrilling games in the past. Think of Lehigh's 2004 heartbreaker to eventual national champion James Madison in a 14-13 dogfight. Or Fordham matching UMass shot for shot last year in a 49-35 shootout. Or "that school in Easton" giving Delaware all they could handle in 2004 before falling 28-14 - or scaring the pants off of Appalachian State the following year after falling 34-23.

This year? Not so much. Villanova junior WR Matt Sczur returned the opening kickoff 91 yards to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead and never looked back in their romp over the Raiders.

Here's an indicator of how bad things were in this game: the Wildcats scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions in the second and third quarters, and scored touchdowns on seven of their first eight possessions. Colgate's vaulted running game - with both senior RB Jordan Scott and freshman RB Nate Eachus in the backfield - to 92 yards in three quarters before pulling the starters and allowing the Raiders to pile up 113 yards in garbage time. Wildcat junior QB Chris Whitney only attempted seven passes - seven! - since Villanova's "O" line was able to pulverize the Colgate "D" line to the tune of 386 rushing yards. Time of possession? Villanova: 36 minutes, Colgate: 24.

Villanova coach Andy Talley, not known for enjoying losses to Patriot League schools, appears to have calculated that his "O" and "D" lines were bigger, better, and stronger than Colgate's. That's why they passed the ball 15 fewer times than their average on Saturday.

Villanova certainly is a national-championship caliber team - and they may prove that over the coming weeks. But simply put, the way the Wilcdat offensive line made Colgate's look like a high school team has to make any Patriot League fan take pause.

I mean, I thought Colgate would put up a better showing than that. I always root for the Patriot League champion in the playoffs - yes, even when it's "that school in Easton" - but if there was ever a painful demonstration as to the differential between the CAA and the Patriot League, this is it. You almost want to send copies of the game to the Patriot League presidents just to show them what we're up against now.

And even before going to Philly, Raider coach Dick Biddle appeared to agree:

"They're probably the best team we've played," Biddle had said even before leaving for Philly. "Villanova lost two games, but one of those was to West Virginia, and they scored 20-something points against them and frustrated them with the good kids they have. They've got a couple of NFL types. I'm not saying they're going to play, but they'll get a shot. And that makes it difficult for us.

"But it's always a challenge once we get in the playoffs because we're a non-scholarship school and almost everybody else has scholarships. Some of our kids have to write 20-page papers after practice and they're not getting any financial aid. They're playing here because they love football, simple as that. That's how it is around here."

I'm not sure coach Biddle wanted his words to be seen as a shout for allowing the Patriot League to have athletic scholarships, but after the drubbing against Villanova it sure can be interpreted that way.

While I've also tried to make my voice heard on scholarships as well (from my op-ed piece in the Morning Call), the loss to Villanova begs for even more perspective.

In recent years, Villanova and Richmond were often cited as expansion candidates for the Patriot League. Both are private schools offering football scholarships; both have strict academic standards they are upholding; and both are currently among the Top 8 football teams in the country. (Conceivably, they could play each other in the championship game.)

At one time Richmond and Villanova were teams struggling to remain in the CAA, and were thought to be not competitive enough with the likes of Delaware and James Madison - so much so, in fact, that there was talk about one or both going to the Patriot League.

Hard to believe now, isn't it?

Richmond and Villanova are clearly not football factories, short-shrifting academics for powerhouse football teams. (Ever been to Villanova stadium?)

Villanova even had the opportunity at one time to jump to the Big East in football - and declined (though it was a split decision). Talley is a coach that is known for graduating athletes, and while Spider head coach Mike London is only in his first year, Richmond is known primarily for academics too, not athletics. Both Villanova and Richmond are tops year in and year out in the NCAA's academic progress rate and graduation rate lists. (Villanova's football team got singled out for their outstanding APR numbers in football last year, and Richmond's at 971 wasn't exactly far off, either.)

Anyone who is against football scholarships in any form for the Patriot League - those that are saying that scholarships are fine for all other sports, but ought not to be used in football since football is what's going to be the tipping point to make Patriot League schools renegade outfits - ought to have to have Richmond and Villanova brought up constantly as a counterargument. If scholarships are so bad, then how come Villanova and Richmond are top schools and yet somehow can field a championship-caliber team?

It's now official: the Patriot League presidents' dithering over football scholarships has officially cost us Villanova and Richmond for football. I can't envision any scenario where 'Nova or Richmond leave the CAA to join the Patriot League, even with scholarships. The policy of not changing things for football because it "ain't broke" has now officially, in my opinion, bit the league in the ass.

Now, the Patriot League has to think about how their teams can be like Villanova and Richmond. Both schools have gone from needing a rescue by the Patriot League to becoming the models upon which the Patriot League will need to look up to in order to be able to be on the same playing field.

'Nova and Richmond are playing meaningful football games in December. And Colgate and the rest of the Patriot League wonder how we could be as good as they are. I don't think that what anyone wanted, but that's where we are.
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