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Patriot League Offseason 2009: Holy Cross

The season starts a week from today, and the first patriot League football game pits Georgetown against the next team I'm profiling: the preseason pick to win it all. I bring you the continuation of my "Patriot League Offseason" series: next up: *your* Holy Cross Crusaders.

HOLY CROSS
Coaching Changes: While the core of head coach Tom Gilmore's staff remains intact - offensive coordinator Mike Pedone and defensive coordinator Richard Rodgers return - you could simply call much of the Crusaders' new assistant coaching staff "Lehigh North". New names include former Lehigh CB Neal Boozer (Dutch Fork HS (GA), Secondary) and former Lehigh LB Matt Mohler (The Citadel, Outside Linebackers). Rounding out the (non-Lehigh) staff is Bill McCarthy (Springfield College; Running Backs) and Walt Houseman (Chicago Rush, AFL; Defensive Line).

The Hardest Guy To Replace: Randolph's two top targets from last year, WR Jon Brock and WR Brett McDermott, have both graduated and won't be easy to replace. Though it seems lately like Holy Cross seems to have no shortage of wideouts waiting in the wings when a couple are lost to graduation, Gilmore will still have to replace 1,418 receiving yards and 18 receiving TDs. One of the big questions about this team will be how junior WR Freddie Santana and junior WR Rob Koster fill their shoes.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: Coach Gilmore bagged a star recruit from somewhere a bit unexpected: the Great White North. Freshman RB Eddie Houghton (St. Michael's HS, Toronto, Canada) ripped up Canadian high schools two years ago to the tune of 11 yards per carry. After a year in prep school, Holy Cross reportedly won out over Vanderbilt, Northwestern... and Cornell, who reportedly told Houghton he was their "number one back". If it's true that Houghton was pried away from an Ivy League school who was pitching that hard, that's a major feather in Gilmore's cap.

Incoming Class Grade: B. I don't have a big problem with this year's recruiting class, which is deep (28 players), wide (Freshman OL Billy Lang lists at 6'6, 295 lbs) hard-hitting (6'2 235 lb freshman LB David Herman) and far-reaching (Freshman RB Anthony Blake, Jr. hails from Portland, OR, while freshman LB Donald Harvey hails from Texas). But the focus on linebackers, trench players and running backs does make one pause: Once senior QB Dominic Randolph graduates, will the pass-happy offense set up around him go with him?

Preseason So Far: Despite finishing a heartbreaking second place the last three years, the Crusaders are wearing the bullseye on their backs with pride. Holy Cross was picked at Patriot League media day atop the Patriot League - and they seem determined to buck the trend which has proved that the preseason #1 pick, over the past seven years, has not won the Patriot League title. The Crusaders, indeed, are walking and talking as if teams need to knock them off the championship perch already.

One member of the Crusaders - team captain, NFL prospect and heart and soul of the offense senior QB Dominic Randolph, is chiseled in as the starter. But questions remain. Can sophomore RB Matt Bellomo or sophomore RB Francis Camara emerge as a powerful 1-2 punch out of the backfield? Can the defense, led by senior LB Marcus Rodriguez, improve on their dead-last conference ratings in sacks (.82 per game) and pass defense (allowing 251.9 yards per game)? And will Holy Cross finally win one of those late-season everything-on-the-line games that determine the Patriot League champion?

This Holy Cross team seems focused this offseason. They are ready to get that title that they have come so close to getting these past three years - perhaps because the season-ending 28-27 loss to Colgate last year was one of those fall-from-ahead losses that no college football player can ever forget. They think they know what needs to be done this year to get over the hump - and they have an idea of what's at stake.

Fan Base: Last year, I posed the question: "[W]hat will happen if once again these poor Holy Cross fans are denied... with another loss to... those (somewhat, anyway) close by Raiders of Colgate (with whom the Crusaders also have a sort-of rivalry)?" One offseason later, the answer clearly is that the stakes will continue to rise. This year, it sometimes feels like the future of the program is in the balance.

While it has to be utter torture for any group of fans to come so close for three years straight just to get skunked, in order to understand these feelings from the Crusader faithful you have to look at the pre-Gilmore era of Holy Cross football. From 1992 to 2003, Holy Cross only enjoyed two winning seasons. Seven times they failed to achieve four wins. From those heady late 1980s days Gordie Lockbaum days, when Holy Cross had a semi-local rivalry with Boston College, in the 1990s there was a thought that Holy Cross might disband football entirely. As famous ESPN columnist (and Holy Cross) alumnus Bill Simmons once wrote, Holy Cross' attitude was "We try to win, but not really."

Enter Tom Gilmore, who took a program who had nowhere to go but up and brought them to the brink of Patriot League titles. He's seen as a miracle worker, with three winning 7-4 records and near-titles. No Crusader fan wants to go back to the dark days of the 1990s. Gilmore's their guy, Randolph's returning to play in his final year of eligibility, and they're the preseason favorites. Gilmore can do no wrong in Worcester.

Yet Sader Nation looks at the roster loaded with seniors, and they're worried. The last time they had a great athlete suiting up at Fitton Field - the legendary Gordie Lockbaum - when he left, in their eyes, the titles and success went right along with it (despite the Patriot League championships that followed his graduation). When Dominic Randolph hangs up his cleats, will it be the site of a mid-1990's-esque collapse of the football program? Every Holy Cross looks at this current team, and worries that it could be the last, best chance before the Crusaders return to football slumber. It's important to realize how the legend of Lockbaum feeds this fear.

The posting of bikeman on the Holy Cross Sports Board says it better than I ever could. "In my opinion, this is the most important season in modern Crusader history. The future of our football program may depend on it."

Overall Offseason: There's confidence that shows through on this team when you see Gilmore and Randolph in person. Quarterback is the single most important position on a football team, and Holy Cross has the best one in the Patriot League in senior QB Dominic Randolph. There's every reason to believe that he and his offense will be the top offense in the league this year once again, even if it has to be done with new targets at wideout and running back. They're the favorites - for the first time in ages - and they seem to be entering the season with a lot of confidence that they can get over the hump.

But it's striking how much Holy Cross and the NFL's Buffalo Bills of the 1990s have in common: a successful past shrouded in some mystery; a dark period of terrible teams; and teams led by a record-breaking pass-happy quarterback that have come agonizingly close to championships, but fallen just short. And it is this season where Holy Cross fans discover if Randolph will be the Crusaders' John Elway, or if he's merely their Jim Kelly.

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