Monday, August 19, 2013

Lehigh's Summer of Pro

During the football season, I've gotten in the writing habit of picking a "Sunday Word", and using it to describe what happened the previous week.

I've been slack in getting this going this preseason, but the only possible word that can perfectly summarize this Lehigh football offseason is "pro".

The NCAA's big ad campaign for years now has been that "most athletes go 'pro' in something other than sports".  And for the great majority of Lehigh athletes, year-in and year-out, this is still true.

But this offseason we've seen an unprecedented number of Lehigh athletes trying their hand at 'pro' ball - and Lehigh fans everywhere couldn't be more thrilled or excited.  There are a lot of "pro" adventures to follow for Lehigh fans right now, and it's damned exciting stuff.


It probably goes without saying that no Lehigh men's basketball player was ever drafted in the NBA before this summer.

As good as G Darren Queenan, F Zahir Carrington and G Greg Falkenbach were in their times on South Mountain - and some did play pro ball - the NBA still seemed out of reach, a club where small-school kids, no matter how proficient, weren't invited.

Looking back, this all changed on March 16th, 2012, when Lehigh stunned Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
From the start, Duke looked sluggish, and after an early trade of baskets, Lehigh - who still didn't seem in gear, either - surged to a tiny lead and held it through most of the first half. 
Part of that was smothering defense by Lehigh, who were forcing bad Blue Devil shots from outside, once even getting a shot clock violation since Rivers couldn't break it.  
It was one move, though, by Lehigh's best-ever basketball player, G C.J. McCollum, that really seemed to give the sense to the world that this team was very much capable of the upset. 
Controlling the ball, in a move that could have been taken from the schoolyard, McCollum head faked Duke F Josh Hairston left and just blew around him to the right off the dribble, driving for a basket that broke a 21-21 deadlock.
There was no bigger stage for the Lehigh men's basketball program.  National TV, the main CBS broadcast.  If for some reason they didn't see C.J.'s incredible speed past Hairston in the first half, they most certainly tuned in with 10 minutes left in the game to get a glimpse at history.

Capping it off was Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the public face of the Duke program after their biggest defeat in tournament history, highly praising C.J.'s 30 point performance.
"They had the best player on the court tonight in McCollum," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's been their player of the year, and he's really one of the outstanding players in the country. You could see why tonight."
When he uttered those words things changed.

Sure, you could say that Portland Trail Blazers G Damian Lillard, last year's NBA Rookie of the Year out of Weber State, made small schools cool, and allowed C.J. to go up the draft board in 2013.

You could also say that C.J. really upped his stock with individual workouts over the next couple of years, and working through the press grind with Holy Cross grad Bill Simmons and a gaggle of other press folks, from the Morning Call and the Express-Times all the way up to ESPN.

But Krzyzewski's endorsement was a Johnny Carson moment, similar to him gesturing Drew Carey or Ellen DeGeneres to sit at the table next to him, changing their lives forever.  It was a vindication that he belonged, and his performance in this game would vault him into Lehigh history as the first Lehigh player ever drafted by the NBA - despite a foot injury that would sideline him for the key portion of his senior season at Lehigh.
Mid-major colleges such as Lehigh generally produce scientists and engineers, not NBA prospects. So McCollum has dealt with the label of being a small-school wonder since he began his career with the Mountain Hawks, constantly having to prove he was NBA-caliber. 
That wasn’t an issue for the Blazers, who selected him 10th overall in the draft after he was named Patriot League Player of the Year twice, and leading Lehigh to a stunning NCAA Tournament first-round victory over Duke in 2012. 
“I just wanted to go where I was wanted,” he said. “I think my game will speak for itself when the season starts and I’ll be utilized in a multitude of ways — on and off the ball — and it will be beneficial for me to play some shooting guard and point guard. The biggest thing for me was to go where I am wanted. Really, things happen for a reason.”
Mid-majors have become a force in college basketball with tournament wins over bigger schools becoming more commonplace. McCollum said top high school prospects would be astute to consider schools such as Lehigh or Butler. 
“If they’re smart, I mean, I would,” he said. “I go to a situation where I could feast. You want to be able to contribute right away and develop. A lot of guys go to school where you’re waiting in line behind [future] NBA players and McDonald’s All-Americans. If you play at the Butlers, you’re going to play on the national stage, and at the same time develop.” 
C.J.'s "pro" adventure is just beginning, but Lehigh fans everywhere have been wowed by his summer league performances in Las Vegas.  Thanks the the NBA Network needing to fill airtime, C.J.'s summer league performances with Rip City's summer team have been available nationally.

Oregon Live users' rating of his summer league performance was a "B" (or maybe a B+ if you count the 17.9% that graded him an "A"), despite his 21 point, 4 rebound, and 3 assist average.

As well that that feast of Lehigh basketball, there's also the "pro" careers of F Gabe Knutson and F Holden Greiner, who are headed to Bulgaria and the Netherlands respectively.
Following his freshman season at Lehigh, Gabe Knutson went on a basketball tour through Bulgaria with Athletes in Action. Little did he know, three years later, he would sign a professional contract to play with Balkan Botevgrad in that country's top division.

"C.J. went to East Asia and I went to Bulgaria," said Knutson. "I got a chance to watch the first division there, which is where I'll be playing. I actually watched the team I signed with."

Knutson had just finished his freshman campaign in the Brown and White, which ended in the first of two NCAA Tournament appearances. At the time, Knutson was already an impressive player, appearing in all 33 games (starting 32) while averaging 9.5 points per game.

"I knew I could play in the second division there as a freshman," said Knutson. I knew I was a few years off skill-wise from potentially playing in the first division, but I knew there would be an opportunity. I had a feeling it was a possibility the whole time. That trip was my first exposure of foreign basketball."
"The team I signed with, Zwelle, one thing they do is work with the community," Holden said.  "They have a lot of camps with young players, and they really like to be involved with their fan base.  They saw what we did at Lehigh with the middle schools and the community, the poster signings, and how we interacted with the fans, and that was one of the reasons they liked me a lot.  Just doing things the right way the things Lehigh did really set me apart for the candidates in this position.
We live in an age now where we can follow all three of these "pro" careers - the first three-"pro" Lehigh men's basketball team in history.  Joining F Michael Ojo playing professionally in Europe, it's been an exciting summer, finding out where everyone will land, and seeing how they thrive in their new positions.  It's an extraordinary time to be a follower of the men's basketball program.

*****

For most schools, the C.J. saga alone would dominate months of blog postings.  But the Lehigh football program also has been the subject of a boatload of excitement that continues through the second week of the NFL preseason.

On Friday evening, Raider LB Billy Boyko came into the second preseason game with the Saints with 7:24 left in the game, playing on special teams after a safety and remaining as the head of the third-team defense.  If you were like me, who waded through the whole game to see Billy appear, you saw him directing people on the defense.

It is encouraging that the Raiders kept him on and didn't release him after he injured his leg early in camp, allowing him to work through it and heal and allowing him to show what he can do in game action.  Certainly this week will be critical for Billy as the Raiders host the Bears.

On Saturday, though, it was a Lehigh homecoming as the Jets hosted the Jaguars.

OL Will Rackley, a third-year "pro", is a starter on the Jaguars offensive line and is penciled in as a starter.  In the first few series, he absolutely dominated the Jet's defensive front on Jacksonville's opening drive, demonstrating exactly why he's the starter.  After the first quarter, he made way for the backups.

But it was WR Ryan Spadola, who is fighting for a spot on the Jets roster, who had a lot of time on both special teams and the second and third team offenses.

In the second half he started off with a 7 yard pass from QB Mark Sanchez to set up a score and then, in a the span of three plays, nabbed two passes from QB Matt Simms, including one spectacular grab where he held onto the ball after being upended by FS Chris Prosinski.

"Targeted three times and with three catches, Spadola continues to make his case for why he should be on this roster come September," the SNY Jets blog opined.

Ryan has seen his stock rise steadily with Jets fans all throughout camp, first with leaping grabs in practice, then with a lot of looks in the first two preseason games.  He's not a mortal lock for a roster spot on a team that has veteran WR Braylon Edwards and WR Ben Obomanu also looking for spots, but without question he has made for a difficult decision for head coach Rex Ryan.

So many years and so many seasons, the NFL preseason simply hasn't been all that interesting for Lehigh fans.  Last year, Rackley was hurt in preseason and didn't even play.

But with three players in the "pro"s this time around, there is real excitement going into this next weekend.

Certainly it helps that Ryan is playing, and competing well, for the Jets.  And it helps that he's doing so in the media capital of the world, New York, where's he's part of the three-ring media circus that is the Jets preseason.

But every Lehigh fan that has seen the extraordinary things that Ryan and Billy did for the Mountain Hawks watch these games and also feel vindicated.  See?  SEE?  Ryan didn't just luck out with QB Chris Lum and QB Mike Colvin tossing to him.  Billy probably should have been Patriot League Player of the Year over Hoya LB Robert McCabe.

Fans look at Ryan, Billy, C.J. Holden and Gabe, and the many other Lehigh athletes that have gone "pro" (too many to mention them all here by name), and are reminded all over again as to why they love rooting for Mountain Hawks to make it.

They're always the "little guy".  Always.

There are always in competition with the athletes that are competing against athletes that played in front of the Duke Crazies, or nutty Gators fans, or... Texas fans.

As a result, their "pro" stock seems to always be traded at a discount.  They didn't play against good competition, people say.  Those wins against LIU or Central Connecticut State don't really count - they're just LIU, or Central Connecticut State, they claim.

Should C.J. have been drafted No. 3 instead of No. 10?  Maybe; we'll see.  Should Ryan have been drafted in the 5th round, instead of falling off the board, to be claimed in free agency?  Maybe; we'll see.

But that's the beauty of it.  You're rooting for them to be successful, because time and again, Lehigh athletes are underestimated, questioned as to whether they actually belong where they are, whether it's against the CAA champions in football, competing against one of the powers of the ACC in basketball, or wherever there's a Lehigh sporting event.

To some degree, this is true in the Real World, too.  You're not generally handed anything just because you own a Lehigh diploma.  You have to prove yourself, then prove yourself again, then re-prove yourself, and hopefully get somewhere.

Every 3 pointer C.J. makes, every jumper Holden drains, every dunk Gabe gets, every pancake block Will makes, every tackle Billy makes, and every catch Ryan nabs in the air is just one more proof that Lehigh athletes belong with the best.  No matter what happens, no matter what people believe initially, they are competing with the best.

We know this.  We always knew this.

And that's why this summer of "pro" has been such a joy to watch.  And the best part is it's not over yet.

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