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Student-Athletes Ring The Bell And Graduate

On Monday, a lot of student-athletes attended Murray Goodman stadium to do what they came to Lehigh to do: graduate.

A few days after their undergraduate careers ended, it's worth celebrating one last time their achievements on the field and off.  There are no "Playstation 3 Studies" majors here: there are a significant number of double majors, business and engineering majors, however.

Not everyone will stop competing as Mountain Hawks, but their academic careers are still making a huge step in a new direction, and it's worth noting.  Best of luck to the class of 2010 - and good luck to some of the Lehigh athletes I've written about over the last four years. While there are a lot of great Lehigh athletes who graduated this year, for the teams I follow the closest in terms of football and men's and women's basketball, here's one last celebration of their accomplishments.  (more)

Men's Basketball:

G Dave Buchberger, Biology
F Zahir Carrington, Sociology/Social Psychology   
G Marquis Hall, Finance

F Matt Shamis, Finance

Lehigh: Patriot League Men's Basketball Champions

Carrington's evening will not soon be forgotten.  Always a good player in the Patriot League, he simply refused to let his team lose last night.  Start with his four blocks - which undoubtedly made Lafayette more hesitant to go inside and shut down the Leopards' inside game.  His stat line read 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 dunks, but it doesn't represent the complete presence he was underneath.

And no other play in the entire game could be more representative of Lehigh's win when Hall - doing his best Mark Jackson no-look pass impersonation - would zip the ball to Carrington for a monster dunk that would put Lehigh up by 10 with 2 minutes to play.  The place simply erupted - the Lehigh fans who had been so nervous before finally went bananas.  Seeing it again on TV gave Carrington his "SportsCenter Moment" - just overpowering with emotion and fired-up intensity.

NCAA Tournament: Lehigh 74, Kansas 90

Down by 11 after a big Kansas run, Lehigh was starting to flag in the first half.  But Hall would dribble down and drain a huge 3 - saying, "My ball" to the rest of the country - which sparked a 9-0 run to close the gap to 2 points.  At a time when Kansas might have thought that Lehigh would fold like a cheap suitcase, Hall's leadership spurred Lehigh back in the game - and made Jayhawk Nation start to shift nervously in their seats.  Hall's final pass to Carrington as the clock was winding down - and their final play as Lehigh players - gave Mountain Hawks fans one last, wonderful look at the magic Hall and Carrington were going to weave.

“I think it was just our team attitude in general," Hall said after the game.  "You know, when we were coming back, basketball is a game of runs, and they were making their runs and we were coming to the huddle during the media segment or a timeout.  We would say now it’s time to make our run.  It’s the attitude of our team to never give up.  We play the full 40 minutes, no matter what happens.”

Buchburger was a critical factor in making it a game for Lehigh as well.  Every time Kansas would try to rally the crowd and stomp on Lehigh's throat, Buch would cooly drain a 3 and seem to say, "We're still here, guys."  Kansas head coach Bill Self almost looked like he was going to blow a gasket against his team all game - Lehigh, especially after jumping to a 12-4 lead, got under his skin.  (Another Patriot League champion getting under Bill Self's skin.)

Women's Basketball
G Alex Ross, History
F Kristen Dalton, Journalism

2009: Lehigh Goes Dancin'

After both Lehigh and Lafayette showed their jitters early in the nationally-televised game, junior G Alex Ross exploded. She had the best half shooting for Lehigh women's basketball that I've ever seen - going 6-for-9 from 3-point land en route to 20 points, while sophomore G Erica Prosser happily kept dishing the ball to her. Lehigh jumped out to a 37-27 halftime lead, after a crucial period where Lehigh's defense held the Lady Leopards scoreless for 5 minutes.

2010: Lehigh Goes Back-To-Back

American wouldn't score another field goal for another 10 minutes as Lehigh would embark on an 18-2 run and never really look back.

Fitting head coach Sue Troyan's vision of "team", those 18 points came from a lot of different players: senior G Alex Ross would drain a 3 pointer (three of her 13 points on the evening), junior F Courtney Dentler would hit a two 3-pointer and jumper (7 points, 4 rebounds), junior G Kristen Dalton would add a bucket and another 3-pointer (8 points off the bench), senior G Tricia Smith would add a bucket (7 points, 11 boards) and junior G Erica Prosser would add a bucket and a free throw.

DT BJ Benning, Psychology
WR Jimmy Potocnie, Accounting
OL Brien Ruyak, Accounting and Economics
FB Anthony Fossati, Finance
LB Matt Cohen, Supply Chain Management
SS Jesse Sanchez, Supply Chain Management
DB Femi Ajewole, Civil Engineering
LB Heath Brickner, Materials Science & Engineering
OL Frank Giacalone, Materials Science & Engineering
(who was also voted into the NFF Hampshire Honor Society earlier this month)

2008: Lehigh 31, Lafayette 15, Final
Monday's Word: Thesaurus
While the MVP of "The Rivalry" officially went to sophomore QB J.B. Clark - and he did have a great game (12/22 passing, 201 yards, 2 TDs) - to me there really wasn't any one MVP. This was a complete team effort, with a lot of those long-suffering seniors having one play here, one play there to bring victory to the Mountain Hawks.

Plays like:

Junior LB Heath Brickner, who would stop Lafayette's opening drive by reaching up and grabbing an interception. Brickner would end the day with 3 tackles, a pass break-up, and that huge interception.

Junior NT B.J. Benning sacking Lafayette QB Marc Quilling on 3rd-and-14 to force a first-half punt - one of his 8 tackles on the day.

Junior LB Matt Cohen, who would team up at the 5 yard line to keep WR Mark Layton out of the end zone on the long 3rd-and-goal started by the Pierce sack. That tackle would hold the Leopards to a field goal. Cohen would end the day with 5 tackles and 1 tackle for loss.

Personally, I was struck by how well both lines played: the "O" and "D" lines. Two years ago in Easton, our lines were out-muscled and out-physicaled by Lafayette. Going into the game, I thought for the first time the matchup looked more even - but Lehigh won that battle this Saturday. Coach Coen's focus on more physical lines - finally- seems to have paid off.

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.

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.

2009: Lehigh 27, Lafayette 21, OT
2009: Monday's Word: Awesome

It almost didn't seem safe to root for Lehigh until Pierce came down with the interception. But then - everything changed.

A year's worth of energy rushed out of the Lehigh stands with that interception. All those times that Lehigh fans had sat in frustration this year after close losses vanished. All at once the fans got behind the team - even if they didn't quite believe what they saw. They stormed the field. They surrounded the team. Senior DT B.J. Benning was carried off the field on their shoulders. Senior LB Matt Cohen celebrated by doing a bit of crowd surfing.

"All coaching is is hang in there with your guys, and they got better all year," Coen said. "We finally got some plays to go our way this game. This was such a tough season for our guys. I'm so happy for them that we were able to get the win here today. To score and take the lead in the fourth quarter for the first time, then give it up, then win the game in overtime, after all the tough losses they've had during the season, I think it speaks volumes to these guys and how they hung in there with us all year.

"Every week, you had to pick them up off the ground - but I tell you what, the time Tuesday came around they were excited to play football. We talk a lot about the kids in our program - we want to bring guys in who are competitors, leaders, and guys who love to play football. I told them before the game that we have those people in the room. It just hasn't worked out for us. So let's just go out and get this one.

"Even when it didn't look great for us out there they kept battling and battling and.... " Coen stopped, getting a bit emotinal. "Awesome. Awesome for those guys."

He was talking about the whole team, but he could have been talking about any number of the seniors out there specifically on defense. When I thought of "awesome" battlers on Saturday, I think of senior DT B.J. Benning, who just stood up Lafayette runners so often in the middle, and senior LB Matt Cohen, being such a constant, disrupting force on defense. They're the only starting seniors on defense that Lehigh will be losing (along with senior LB Heath Brickner, who was hurt), but they will leave awfully big shoes to fill.

Senior FB Anthony Fossati, the strongest guy on the team, battled on a 1 yard touchdown run to get in the end zone. That might have been his only carry of the year - and important touchdown, one that gave Lehigh the lead.

And when the Mountain Hawks saw it was overtime, while some of the fans' stomachs were in knots that wasn't the case on the sideline. The team was huddled around coach Coen and running backs coach R.J. Ryan, together listening to them speak.

"Coach Ryan played here and we all respect him. He really got us fired up as the clock was ticking down. The whole offense came together and [he] said to us, 'This is why you play the game. Who is going to step up and make the play to win this game?' That really got us fired up," starting senior OL Frank Giacalone said to the Brown & White.

LFN: 2010 Hawks of the Year Award

Defensive Hawks of the Year
Benning, an Ellicot City, Maryland native, was the key linchpin on the "D" line in Lehigh's 3-4 defense. Always an LFN fave, he didn't always have the gaudiest numbers every game but he always seemed to get the tough tackles, and big tackles for loss in big situations game in and game out. His 47 tackles, and 9 tackles for loss including two sacks, were a big reason why Lehigh's "D" was so fearsome in 2009. His 12 tackles and 1 sack against Central Connecticut State earned him Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week honors, too.
LFN's Hawk of the Year
No surprise here.

Senior LB Matt Cohen, named to four all-American teams, could have been the best linebacker to don the Brown and White since LB Jim McCormick. An ironman from wherever he played - inside or outside linebacker - the Allentown, PA native racked up 44 tackles for loss in his Lehigh career, which is by far the largest total in Lehigh history.

At 6'1, 230, Cohen was a quiet leader on the Mountain Hawk defense, but dependable for one or two game-changing big tackles a game, it seemed. Never a big talker, he preferred to have his hitting do the speaking. When Lafayette was driving on first-and-goal from the 6 yard line to attempt to take the lead during a 14-14 deadlock, his power tackle set the tone for the goal-line stand that would ultimately start Lehigh on a big TD drive - a huge play in Lehigh's 27-21 OT victory in a game of huge plays.

A tough, physical player, I was struck how many big defensive plays over his career I would witness, and then think to myself, "I bet that was Cohen", and sure enough it was. Against Georgetown, he was unstoppable, with 3 sacks - which was good enough for Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Matt, to go with your four All-America nominations, here's a fifth honor: LFN's Hawk of the Year.

I know there are many, many, MANY more Lehigh athletes who graduated Monday who deserve pages written about them, too. Congratulations to all of them - and no go out and make the rest of your lives a success, too.


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