Strangely, I really struggled to find the right word. Yes, there was a lot of 'glory'. Yes, the 24-7 win over Georgetown does guarantee that this team will get the 'rings' they so desperately wanted. Yes, 'playoffs' would also be a legitimate "Word", too, since now the Mountain Hawks will be playoff-bound for the first time since 2004.
And yet - and yet - the regular season is not over. For the Mountain Hawks - who were clearly not as crisp as they could have been this Saturday in their championship-clinching win over the Hoyas - have to guard against a dangerous "hangover" against their bitter rivals this weekend. Regarding the game against the Leopards as anything but a "absolute must-win" would be a real mistake. (more)
So why "Hangover", then, after all those other, more positive words could have been chosen?
First, there's the movie, starring Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms. A madcap road comedy illustrating the perils of having your bachelor party in Las Vegas, it does show what can happen when you're busy partying and not paying attention. You could end up with a newborn in tow and facing off against Mike Tyson - and a heck of a "hangover".
"Hangover", too, seems appropriate in the run-up to "Rivalry Week". One prediction that is safe to make is that there will be a few "hangovers" in South Mountain in the week leading to the 146th meeting between the Leopards and Mountain Hawks - and that not a few "hung over" students and achy players will be heading to a viewing party at 10:00 AM Sunday morning - as the FCS Playoff bracket is announced and the players and rabid fans find out who, and where, the Mountain Hawks will be playing.
But the word also applies in regards to the play on the field, too. Despite the success, there's been a few "hangovers" in the games of the past two weeks.
Against Colgate - a 44-14 victory - Lehigh came out with their best, most crisp game that I've seen in a long time. It was a great win, that deservedly was celebrated by players, fans, and coaches. It was easy to get caught up in the party atmosphere of the win against Colgate - probably Lehigh's second-biggest rival.
But in the ensuing Patriot League games, the Mountain Hawks also appear to have had tiny "hangovers" in these two games, too, that could have turned a five-game winning streak into a disappointing end to the season.
The Holy Cross game ended up as a 34-17 victory, but observers after the game were not all waxing philosophic about the crisp passing of junior QB Chris Lum or the crushing hits delivered by senior LB Al Pierce. They was some frustration of a "hangover" from the success of the Colgate game - seven penalties for seventy yards, including one that took a touchdown off the board. Two big turnovers in the red zone - that required a great defensive effort to prevent from becoming a huge momentum shift. Yes, it ended up as a convincing win - and ended up giving Lehigh at worst a share of the title - but there was that evidence of a "hangover" from the Colgate game.
Going into this weekend, Georgetown was seen as a potential "trap" game for the Mountain Hawks by some - and the reason for that is, once again, a sort-of "hangover" from the highs of the previous weeks. It was a big deal, but it wasn't as festive at Holy Cross to clinch the co-championship as it was the previous week - it seemed like this team had grasped that they needed to be focused and "hungry" to win the outright championship.
Lehigh played pretty well in the first half - especially on defense. And yet, the score read Georgetown 7, Lehigh 6 at halftime, for reasons that could have been caused by - yes - a "hangover" from all the success this team has had.
Two drives that could have been touchdowns instead ended up as FGs by senior PK Tom "Razza-Dazza" Randazza - partially thanks to some dropped passes. Three plays - a huge interception by Lum, a big Hoya play to WR Max Weizenegger off a 4th down conversion and a 9 yard TD run by Dalen Claytor where he sliced through the heart of the defense game Georgetown the lead.
It wasn't just one unit, as head coach Andy Coen probably loudly reminded the Mountain Hawks at halftime, but the offense and defense left plays out on the field, and gave up more big plays than they got. The "hangover" made this a football game - when in Patriot League years past, the words "Georgetown gave us a game" was not something that had been ever uttered.
Lehigh would prevail in the end, in a hard-fought 24-7 victory. But there was plenty on the score sheet to not be happy about. Seven penalties for fifty yards, including one special teams penalty that reversed a seventy-yard kickoff return by senior KR John "Prez" Kennedy and another that took points off the board that could have won the game. A 50% completion rate - not all the quarterback's fault, as the Hoyas played inspired defensive football - but still, not the same crisp operation that fans saw vs. Colgate, and not a few passes that were dropped.
It still resulted in a championship, so you can't be too upset. It still resulted in rings, so it's still a glorious win by definition.
It also showed that this team is, when it counts, tough as nails. You get the impression that this is a game that, two years ago, Lehigh would have lost - but even "hung over" this team finded the cure for their "hangover" and found a way to grit through and win this game. Lehigh earned their outright championship and win this weekend with a battle for almost the entire game, and had to earn every point.
It was great. It's something that every senior will remember for the rest of their lives.
But it also could have been a whole lot better.
And - for yet another week - the risk of a "hangover" loss looms greatly over the 146th this coming weekend.
Don't laugh. Sure, "the boys from Easton" are 2-8. Sure, Lehigh has reversed the Leopards' record, at 8-2. If you played this game out on paper, you'd probably figure on a Lehigh victory.
But if there's one thing that's easy to show is that the potential of "hangover" losses, when you've already clinched a championship, are too real.
Ask 8-2 Fordham in 2007, who had wrapped up a playoff spot the next to last week in November after a 24-21 win over Holy Cross. They hosted Bucknell two weeks later - and were blown out, 38-24, to finish at 8-3. They were sent to UMass in the first round of the playoffs.
Ask 8-2 Holy Cross last year, who had a chance to go 9-2 and possibly host a first-round playoff game, and instead lost to Bucknell in Lewisburg 23-17 in a classic "hangover" game. The Crusaders instead ended up at 8-3, and were sent to eventual national champions Villanova in the first round of the playoffs.
And this year, you can add 8-1 Robert Morris to the list. After beating Central Connecticut State in resounding fashion 42-24, they travelled to Smithfield, Rhode Island and were defeated 27-24 - and possibly playing themselves out of hosting a first-round game as well.
For all of these teams, losing the final game of the year may not have been pleasant, but it was somewhat understandable. Both teams had been out of the playoffs for a long time - in the case of the Colonials, it's their first-ever playoff appearance - and getting up emotionally for the last regular-season game wasn't as high a priority as the playoffs the week after.
But for Lehigh, it's completely different.
On paper, Lehigh has had four championships in the last ten years. But really, only two has felt like a real championship.
2004 technically was a championship year for the Mountain Hawks. But it sure didn't feel like one after Lehigh lost 24-10 to the Leopards, to make it a shared championship and losing the autobid to the Leopards. The NCAA playoff committee gave Lehigh a break and an at-large bid - and even a home game, to boot - but I was in the interview room that day. There was not an ounce of joy in that so-called "championship" for the Lehigh players.
2006 was also, technically, a championship year for the Mountain Hawks, too, but after a 49-26 drubbing by the Leopards and losing the autobid - again - to the Leopards, it was a grim, chastened locker room that afternoon in head coach Andy Coen's first-ever Lehigh/Lafayette game.
You have to go back the the "old times" - in 2000 and 2001 - when Lehigh last actually beat Lafayette and won the Patriot League title in the same year.
But those years for Lehigh were very different that today. Back then, the Mountain Hawks seemed to have a true talent advantage over the rest of the league (and Lafayette in particular, as their leadership was at that time publicly mulling the possibility of dropping to D-III).
The byword of the Patriot League of 2010, despite Lehigh's undefeated league record, is parity. I've heard it or read it from every coach in this league. There are no "gimmies", even if the record says 2-8.
And ask anyone who has followed this "Rivalry" over any length of time, and they'll send out some variation on this story: "I remember that year when [Lafayette, Lehigh] came into the game 8-1, and when [Lehigh, Lafayette] was 2-7 - and the team with the worse record won. Big."
The Leopard seniors know this will be their last-ever football game, their last opportunity to show a national audience what Lafayette football is all about. They will play more inspired than they have all year. Are the Leopards dangerous? You better believe it.
There are huge, neon warning signs of a possible letdown this week. A "hangover game". A game that may very well mean a whole lot more to Lafayette than Lehigh.
But this football team needs to be keenly aware that despite any rings they might have already earned, a Patriot League championship without a win over Lafayette is a lot more hollow than one with a victory over their historic, bitter rivals in the 146th meeting between the two schools.
If this team gets caught up in the week - in the playoffs - in the championship - in the rings - they could find themselves at 8-3, looking for the missing groom on Sunday, wondering "What happened?".
They could hear their names at 10:00AM on ESPNU being sent far, far away from the Lehigh Valley - when a home playoff game, or maybe even a bye week, was so close to being within reach.
They could own a Patriot League championship - and wonder how much better it could have been, had they not been "hung over" and lost to Lafayette.
Please, guys. No "hangover". Not this week.