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Sunday's Word: Star

It's been a very strange, "star"-studded offseason for one Lehigh alumna.

Whitney Chen, whose tremendous run at becoming the Next Food Network "Star" fell a tiny bit short last night, had a run through the famous reality show competition that saw her outperform a slew of professional restaurant chefs, writers, caterers, and restauranteurs.

And, in a weird sort of way, it eerily seemed to parallel the Lehigh football team's rise through the ranks last year.

It's worth telling the entire tale of Ms. Chen's surprise rise to the top of the Food Network reality show hosted by Bobby Flay - and to look back, one last time, at where we left the Lehigh football team at the end of last season. (more)

If you check Ms. Chen's Twitter page (her handle is @whittybites, for those interested in becoming a follower), she calls herself "Engineer turned line cook turned Food Network "Star" turned Gilt Taste Writer.

Ms. Chen started her career with an Engineering degree from Lehigh - but traded a career of cubicles and computers to attend culinary school, eventually becoming a line chef in New York City - and, eventually, into the "Food Network Star" competition.

On her bio on Food Network, she said how she was proudest at her ability to "gut things out" when things are tough. It seemed to serve her well in her education in Engineering - no mean feat to graduate with such a degree at Lehigh - and to get her position as a line cook in a restaurant, which is not known for its practitioners having a great deal of grace to see young people muscle in on their territory.

And in retrospect, her ability to "gut things out" is what carried her through the competition, as well as a fierce competitiveness. ("I even lost some boyfriends over it," she joked in the bio video.) It seemed like her best work was when her back was against the wall, on the brink of elimination, when she cooked hotdogs and impressed Bobby Flay, or when she went on Rachel Ray's show and absolutely crushed her competition in the format.

And yet, Ms. Chen did get eliminated from the competition. Why?

If this were a competition about who can craft the best food, Ms. Chen would have won, hands down. She could describe her food well, and she clearly talked about her food as if she had a decade's worth of experience owning her own restaurant. She clearly knows her stuff.

But the Food Network requires a host to be able to sell the food, and that's where Ms. Chen fell a short in the judges eyes, I think. For better or worse, the Food Network requires its hosts to look into the camera, take a bite of some greasy fries or something, and look like they've just tasted something from Paul Bocuse. Some contestants can look into the camera, and sell some crepe that she tasted a second ago to be the Best Thing I Ever Ate. Some cannot - perhaps they're too genuine to be able to do that.

You get this picture in the Food Network offices that when they look over their potential "stars" that they give a secret "rating", before the competition, as to who they thought would be around at the end. I'd be willing to bet a bowl of Ms. Chen's white bean chili that the expectations for Ms. Chen going into the competition were very modest - that the young line cook might make it through a few shows, perhaps, and cave under pressure.

That Ms. Chen made it this far is a great testament to her ability to be competitive and to be a fighter. She did not cave under pressure - indeed, she thrived on it. And I'll bet that everyone involved with the show was surprised as to how far she went. She impressed a lot of people - of that, I'm sure.

*****

It's almost eerie how Ms. Chen's work on Food Network "Star" parallels Lehigh's season last year in important ways.

Like Ms. Chen in Food Network Star, Lehigh came into last year's Patriot League competition with modest expectations.

The Mountain Hawks were coming off of a 5-6 record, picked to finish in the middle of the pack. Colgate boasted the return of QB Greg Sullivan as well as senior RB Nate Eachus, and seemed like the logical choice to win the whole thing.

And after a brutal early going - including big losses to CAA opponents Villanova and New Hampshire - Lehigh found themselves in the bottom two, looking at possible elimination and another losing record.

But faced with a possible slide into irrelevance against Harvard, Lehigh's competitive spirit came forth. With the eruption of junior WR Ryan Spadola and senior QB Chris Lum - not to mention the emergence of senior LB Mike Groome from fifth linebacker to co-leader of the defense - Lehigh came from behind to beat Harvard, 21-19, and surged into league play on a winning streak.

While there were some surprising shows of force - the 44-14 win over Colgate was surprisingly easy for this Lehigh team - their ability to "gut things out" was crucial in important games versus Holy Cross and Georgetown, too.

Leading 7-3 and time running out in the first half, Lum found TE Alex Wojdowski - who sidestepped a Holy Cross tackler short of the end zone - to get a huge 14-3 lead at halftime in a 34-17 win.

And at Georgetown, Lehigh trailed at halftime, 7-6, before junior QB Michael Colvin would punctuate a Lehigh drive with a huge touchdown that would give Lehigh a lead they would not relinquish, giving the Mountain Hawks a 24-7 win and Lehigh's first outright title since 2001.

If most of the Food Network followers thought Ms. Chen would be eliminated early in Food Network "Star", certainly most FCS playoff watchers thought that Lehigh would be no match for Northern Iowa on the road at the UNI Dome.

And yet, Lehigh exceeded everyone's expectations with a convincing 14-7 shutdown of the Panthers, giving Lehigh their first playoff win since - oddly enough - 2001. (And, oddly enough, my Sunday Word after the win was something that probably would be something easy for Ms. Chen to make: "Gravy".)

But - like Ms. Chen - at some point, competitiveness and grit weren't enough to win the national championship. Ms. Chen ran into a tearful roast in front of comedians like Louie Anderson and Gilbert Gottfried. Lehigh ran into QB Pat Devlin and the Delaware Blue Hens, where the Mountain Hawks took a 42-20 defeat.

Blue Hen head coach K.C. "Hollywood" Keeler - who most definitely can look into the camera and convince you that those fries in his hand is the "best thing he ever ate" - advanced in the competition, and made it to the FCS National Championship game, while the gutty Lehigh squad - without a lot of tears - would head home, beaten, but still proud of what they had accomplished.

The one difference from Lehigh's run in football last year and Ms. Chen's loss this Sunday were her tears.

****

It's way too early to tell how Lehigh will do this year. But it's abundantly clear that the storyline will not be the same as last year: nor will it echo Ms. Chen's rise on the Food Network "Star" this year.

Lehigh is almost a mortal lock tomorrow at Patriot League Media Day, to be the preseason favorite to win the league. With Patriot League "stars" returning on offense and defense, including senior QB Chris Lum, it would be a big surprise if they weren't.

Rather than hiding in the shadows, sort-of taking the league by surprise, every Patriot League opponent will know Messrs Groome and Lum by name. They'll have that game circled on the calendar. They'll know that this is the team that beat Northern Iowa last year in the playoffs.

And that will extend to the nationally-ranked portion of their schedule, too. New Hampshire will be keenly aware of Lehigh's strengths and weaknesses. So will Liberty.

This team will not sneak up on anyone. This team will not do what Ms. Chen did on Food Network "Star". And that will make this season, in ways, much, much more challenging than what happened last year.

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