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Rounding Up the Press on Lehigh vs. Towson

(Photo Credit: Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

As Towson entered the field before their playoff game versus Lehigh, and unidentified player came through the large, inflatable tiger head holding a championship belt, not unlike one a prizefighter might wear.

As someone who writes about Lehigh football, it provided an irresistible storyline for the playoff game, with echoes of Ali vs. Frazier.  The Thrila in Manila.  A prizefight.

It makes naming this game the "Towson Thrilla" from here on forward just that much easier.

What did the the Lehigh players think about the move after the game?

"We had no knowledge of it until we saw them run out with it," junior WR Ryan "The Answer" Spadola said to me later.  "It was bad on their part because it just got us more fired up."

As we go over the mountain of great press about this phenomenal game, I'd like to round up the highlights of those articles, as well as empty out my own notebook, before devoting all of my energy to North Dakota State.


The post-game press conference was jam-packed with reporters, including a full contingent from the Morning Call (Keith Groller, Paul Reinhard), the Express-Times (Michael LoRe), the Sports Network (Sean Shapiro) and a host of other Baltimore and Washington, DC working media.

Towson came out first.  Head coach Rob Ambrose came out misty-eyed, while QB Grant Enders and DE Brian Boateng sat stoically next to him.

"Those of you who have been here before know I don't ever have notes, but this is the first time I've said this," Ambrose opened with.  "I don't think I could have imagined being more proud to be a head coach of an institution than I was today when I came out and saw my guys and saw the [crowd]," he said. "That was awe-inspiring. Not only am I proud to be a coach here, I'm proud to be a member of this community.  My hats are off to the seniors.  They deserve a degree of respect that most people will never understand.

"Hats off to Lehigh.  They're a pretty damn good team."

The local media talked a lot about suspensions and injuries on the team, especially on defense.  Boateng, however, didn't make any excuses.

"On defense, you need to man up," he said.  "You've got to step up if someone gets hurt.  You've just got to make plays."

He was asked point-blank if Lehigh's offense was the best they've faced all season long.

"No," he replied simply.

He was then asked if Lehigh had the best receiver they'd seen all year.

"No," he replied again.

Later on in the press conference, I asked coach Ambrose a question about any lessons he's imparted on his young team, a Tiger squad that had only four starters that were seniors.  In a Baltimore Sun commentary by Kevin Cowherd, my question and answer were reported:

When it was all over and Ambrose was asked what he had told his players, whether he had any words of wisdom for them about lessons learned in the most important game of their young lives, he shook his head sadly. 
"To expect them to derive any kind of educational anything in the midst of ridiculous personal pain would be a poor job on my part as an educator," he said. "Before the game, I did whatever I could to make this as normal as possible. 
"Truth be told, this is the most momentous thing that anybody who's been around here for 15 years has seen. And they were a part of it. They earned their right to be a part of it. And so did everyone in the stands."

*****

On the biggest win of the Lehigh football program since 1998, head coach Andy Coen's three opening questions on the win were instead about a comment on a social networking site.

Early Saturday morning, Coen was told that a Lehigh player used a racial slur in a post he had made.

What had happened was the player was commenting on a social media post from another person, where he used a racial reference from another user's post in a response with his name.

From there, it was spread by other users until it got onto the computer monitors of Towson fans and media, where it caused a ruckus.

The action was a clear violation of Lehigh's social media policy.  "When he reused the words, he made them his," an official statement released by Lehigh stated:

Engaging in any kind of digital sparring via social media violates the Athletics Department social media policy and will result in sanctions for the student-athlete that include making educational presentations to other teams about appropriate use of social media, as well as arranging for and leading team discussions with each of our sports about the University’s Principles of an Equitable Community.  I addressed the matter directly with the student-athlete on Saturday morning as soon as I learned about it. It is always our obligation to use our experiences as learning opportunities and accordingly, this episode was shared with the full team on Sunday. 

All in all, Lehigh Athletics, and coach Coen, acted completely appropriately, in my opinion.  "Digital sparring" makes inadvertent bulletin board material for other teams, and can explode into something much bigger than the student ever intended.  It should be something anybody, but most of all student-athletes representing their entire school, needs to be keenly aware of when they post something on Facebook or Twitter.

In the pregame radio show from Towson, the incident was played up, added more fuel to an already intense game, and distracted from the achievements on the field.  Amazing to think one comment could do that, but in this day and age, it can.

*****

Some other quotes from the press conference:

Junior WR Ryan Spadola, on battling back from Towson's offensive scores: "We just knew we had to come back and match it all game. We knew it was going to be a back-and-forth battle, and Towson would make plays.  It was our part as an offense to put points on the board - we kept scoring to do our part, and eventually the defense would stop their offense.  We really focused on the sidelines, knowing that each drive we had to execute our plays.

Senior QB Chris Lum, on confidence with his receivers: "Every single receiver, great players making great plays.  That one duck-looking pass I threw to [Ryan] was a great play on his part.  All season long I've been putting the ball in their hands and asked them to make plays, and they've been doing it all year.  I'm very fortunate to have the supporting cast I do - it starts with the offensive line, giving me time.  We're a really good offensive unit right now."

Junior DE Tom Bianchi, on the defense's mental process after giving up touchdowns: "As a defense, we played real high, pumped up.  We always perform at a better level when we're that way.  There was a time at the end of the first half when we got down a little bit, but key guys on the team, like senior LB Mike Groome and senior LB Colin Newton, and junior DE Cody Connare were coming up, and getting us going.  I thought that was key.

Morning Call: Lehigh Gets Its Safety Net And A Remarkable Playoff Win
Morning Call: Lehigh's Win over Towson Tops them All for head coach Andy Coen
Express-Times: Lehigh Beats Towson in Second Round of Playoffs
Brown & White: Football Advances to Quarterfinal

"We just had to keep our poise and focus because we knew it was going to be a battle all game," Spadola said. "Towson is a talented team and we knew they were going to make plays. We just had to do our part and keeping matching them." 
Lehigh offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini called another masterful game, coming up with a couple of new wrinkles; some that worked — like a handoff to senior RB Matt Fitz who threw to junior TE Jamel Haggins for a touchdown — and some that didn't like a double-pass play that was dropped. 
"We put in plays that we practiced a lot and [Cecchini] knows when to call them," Lum said. "We just rolled with them." 
Even Towson coach Rob Ambrose chimed in and called the Lehigh coaches "offensive gurus" and said the No. 6 ranked Mountain Hawks are a "pretty darn good team." 
“Coach preached to us that we had to maintain poise and focus,” said Spadola, who had 152 yards and a TD on 13 receptions. “We knew we had to come back and match it. All game it was back and forth. 
The Hawks’ win can be attributed to a total offensive effort. 
“We’re a very balanced offense, and if anything, we put the game on Lum’s shoulders at times,” said senior offensive lineman Jim Liebler.

*****
Coaches know they can only make enemies and alienate friends when they start ranking teams and rating victories
.
So, Lehigh football coach Andy Coen is not one to throw around phrases like "best this" or "greatest that" very often. 
But as he leaned against a wall in the hallway of the fieldhouse at Towson's Johnny Unitas Stadium on Saturday night and put an amazing 40-38 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision win over the host Tigers into perspective, Coen conceded "this was the best." 
"I was thinking during the game that if we could somehow pull this off, this would top a long list of very happy moments for me at Lehigh," Coen said.

Baltimore Sun: Towson's Remarkable Season Ends With Playoff Loss to Lehigh
Towerlight: Tigers Fall in FCS Playoff Debut

Ambrose denied speculation on the team's radio broadcast that RB Terrance West had a leg injury, saying that West had not practiced very well the past 10 days and that Lehigh's defense was geared to stop the leading scorer in FCS by stacking the box. The Tigers rushed for season-low 125 yards on 38 carries. 
“Truth be told, [West] didn’t practice very well [last week],” Ambrose said. “We have a good stable of running backs that are now finally healthy. They are pretty damn good defensively, upfront. They packed the box, and we had to adjust. 
"The kid's going to be amazing, I do believe that. But he's a freshman and as such, he's going to do and say and act and practice as a freshman. Every guy on this team from top to bottom has talent. Every guy on this team gets what they earn, good and bad. Before we had a bunch of injuries, Terrance was just a guy on this team getting some reps just like everybody else." 
The Tigers also went into the game with several key injuries, including LB Danzel White, backup middle LB Kyle Polk and OL Doug Shaw (Loyola Blakefield). They had a hard time getting Lehigh's offense off the field, as Lum completed 36 of 48 passes for 351 yards and a touchdown, including 13 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown to Spadola. 
"A long time ago, even before we started the season, we said, 'If we could stay healthy, that we would be in good shape to win some ballgames,' " Ambrose said. "We needed all the bullets in the gun. We start losing a couple of the bullets it starts to show. ... I'm just happy to have bullets in the gun, at one time we had just rocks that we threw at people."

The Sports Network: Lehigh Finally Breaks Through Against the CAA
Coen hadn't beaten a CAA opponent since 2006, his first career victory in a 31-28 showing against Villanova. In those past meetings with CAA opponents, Lehigh had come close, but could never make the crucial play to clinch the victory, which includes the only loss of the season, a 48-41 overtime setback against New Hampshire in Week 2. 
While that loss put a blemish on the Mountain Hawks' record, it did provide a blueprint for winning a shootout and making the key play, something defensive end Tom Bianchi did with 5:14 remaining. 
"I thought it was really good that we were able to play a CAA team earlier in the year, because it was actually a similar game," Bianchi said. "Our defense has had to keep hanging around. No matter how many times they score we still have to come back and do our job and hold them down." 
One of Fitz and Lum's finest moments came late in the second quarter, as they helped execute a 99-yard drive to erase any momentum Towson had developed on a touchdown run by Terrance West. 
On the drive, all 99 yards came through the air, with Lum completing 7-of-9 attempts to get the Mountain Hawks to the Towson 23-yard line. Fitz did the rest, taking a handoff, stopping before the line of scrimmage and throwing a touchdown pass to Jamel Haggins on the fake play. 
"That was definitely a highlight and the longest one I've ever been a part of," Lum said. "It felt good and it gave us the confidence to keep going on for the rest of the game."

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