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LFN's Top Blog Reads of 2017

We're approaching the end of 2017, and it's been an interesting year where Lehigh football fans have experienced a multitude of emotions: anger; sadness; redemption, and, finally, joy.

As you all know, the Mountain Hawks came back from the precipice of a disastrous season to come back and win back-to-back Patriot League championships and back-to-back FCS Playoff appearances.

In that vein, I thought I'd share the best and most-read LFN pieces from last season, from No. 10 to No. 1.

Going through all my stuff from the past year, these were the pieces that really stood out to me.


No 10.  If I Wrote The Opening Scene to the Barry Levinson/Al Pacino Penn State Movie

I don't know Levinson, or Pacino, and I know there's already three pro writers on this project already whom I also don't know personally (for the record, Debora Cahn (Grey's Anatomy), John C. Richards (Nurse Betty), and David McKenna (American History X)).  I also know that it's based on the book by Joe Posanski (called Paterno, released shortly after the Sandusky scandal came to light), another artist whom I also don't know personally.

What I do know, though, is that a great movie about Joe Paterno and the scandal can be made, and the opening scene should be what I wrote below - formed almost entirely from Paterno's own words.

No. 9.  The Penn Game: Lehigh Hits Rock Bottom In Dismal 65-47 Loss to Penn

No. 9.  The Penn Game: The Opportunity To Heal Without Permanent Scars

In reality, this loss, and the prior three, are a black eye to Lehigh pride and a sign of things that need to be fixed, but they pale in comparison to the losses I described above.  That's because the Mountain Hawks of 2017 still have a chance to be in a position to win and do something good with the season, as unlikely as that feels at this very moment.  The truth is that black eyes can heal in September.  The Jonathan Hurt reception, though, leaves a scar.

If I have a message to this 2017 football team and staff, it's to let nothing in this season leave a scar.  So far, this team has been beat up, humbled, and not meeting expectations.  But all the wounds are either self-inflicted or something that can heal without a scar.

No. 8: Patriot League Fans Stunned At the Firing of Tom Gilmore at Holy Cross

It was clear that Holy Cross' 32-0 loss to Yale wasn't going to yield many highlights for their end-of-the-year DVD.

“We just couldn’t string anything together,” head coach Tom Gilmore said after the loss. “They got us on our heels. They were executing some big plays and it snowballed. Yale kept the pressure on and it one of those days we couldn’t flip the momentum.”

At 2-5, the Crusaders did, and still do, have a chance to win the Patriot League, if they win the rest of their games and Lafayette loses twice - certainly not an inconceivable notion.

Even so, Holy Cross athletic director Nathan Pine sent shockwaves through the Patriot League this weekend when he called head coach Tom Gilmore and told him that he was being terminated immediately, with Brian Rock, the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, taking over on an interim basis.



On an afternoon where he broke a bunch of school and Patriot League records - some of them unanticipated - his focus, as ever, was about getting the league victories that count towards the main goal of this team - to defend their Patriot League Championship.

"I didn't know what the records are," Troy said afterwards about his record-busting, 16 catch, 197 receiving yard, 4 touchdown performance.  "I just knew I was close.  I knew it was going to come if I bought in every day, do what I need to do every day to get better, and I knew it would come."

Fortunately for Lehigh fans, his banner day came to allow Lehigh to resoundingly beat Georgetown 54-35 and go to 2-0 in Patriot League play.


One of the hottest topics in the sportswriting niche of the world has been the following online debate, kicked off by Bryan Curtis over at The Ringer.  The name of his piece was "The End of 'Stick to Sports'", and it was a thinkpiece that truly got writing minds thinking.  "Sportswriters have been awakened by Donald Trump’s presidency," the byline read.  "Is that what their readers want?"

It's had an interesting effect on the entire sportswriting community - a response veering from general agreement, to "we never really did stick to sports anyway" and "I will always stick to sports and let others talk about politics."

What it isn't is cut and dry.  I think the problem with this so-called "debate" is that it attempts to make sportswriting into a binary choice - either you stick to sports or you have your sports explore other topics.

Art is not a series of binary choices, and if you agree sportswriting is a form of art, then "sticking to sports" will never work.  It's like saying to Lady Gaga "stick to singing show tunes".  It doesn't work that way.


This week, Lafayette plays Harvard up in Cambridge, where the 2-4 Leopards are expected to lose to the 2-2 Crimson.  I say expected to lose because with one exception since 2000, that's what's happened every time Lafayette has played Harvard: they have lost 12 out of their last 13 to the Johnnies, and have a lifetime record of 3-19 against them.

The expectation among Patriot League football fans is that football scholarships were supposed to change all of that.  Simply offer conventional football scholarships, add to that a chance to play in the FCS Playoffs, and suddenly football recruits choosing between Harvard and Lehigh for business would start choosing Lehigh.

It hasn't worked out quite that way.

Through five games in 2017, the combined record of the Patriot League is a mind-boggling 8-21 outside of Patriot League contests.   And of those eight wins, only one has come against a team from the Ivy League - Colgate's 21-7 win over Cornell.  Collectively, the Patriot League is 1-7 against the Ancient Eight, with six of those seven losses coming by more than two touchdowns.

This is not what fans of the Patriot League signed up for five years ago when they decided to offer the same sort of scholarships that schools like Delaware, Montana and North Dakota State.  But is the problem scholarships, or is it something else?


Last weekend, Lafayette traveled up to Harvard to play the Crimson up in Cambridge.  It was the 19th meeting between the Leopards and the Crimson, a series that started in 1966 and has been a frequent event since the early 1990s.

It was a pretty historic game, too: the 700th football game contested at Harvard Stadium.

In years past, you might have found members of the local Lehigh Valley media making a trip up to Boston to cover the game from an independent Lafayette perspective, and you would have seen a recap online and some postgame quotes from the postgame press conference in there as well, as well as seeing an article or two about the game in the Sunday paper.

This weekend, though, there was nothing.

The recap in The Morning Call was not the great work of Paul Reinhard, who freelances for the paper - they didn't pay him to go up to Cambridge to take in the game and ask John Garrett about the progress of the team.  Instead, someone added a topper sentence to the AP recap of the game - and that was it.  Four paragraphs for the online crowd and the Sunday readership.

And on Lehigh Valley Live online, the old Easton Express-Times - nothing.  This week, quietly, they dropped their college sports coverage, citing the fact that there wasn't enough traffic to justify their continued coverage of Lehigh, Lafayette, or Patriot League football.



When I heard the news Tubby Raymond, legendary Delaware head football coach, died last week at the age of 92, two immediate memories came rushing back to me.

One occurred on October 16th, 1999.  Never had I felt a win so viscerally vindicating than the one over Tubby Raymond's team - a win that might have kept the Blue Hens out of the playoffs that year, and might have allowed Lehigh to squeeze into the playoffs at 10-1 with a precious at-large bid.  (And they did it on homecoming!  Homecoming!  "It was one of the most enjoyable wins I've ever had," Higgins said years afterwards.)

The other memory that came rushing back was the run-up to Delaware's home I-AA playoff football game a year later.  I remember the visceral excitement that I had that Lehigh was going to have a chance to beat Delaware twice in two years at their place.  And I was looking in the newspaper for what Tubby Raymond had to say about Lehigh.  Nothing.

And Tubby's 2001 team simply shut up, and hit Lehigh in the mouth repeatedly in a 47-22 rout that wasn't as close as the final score might indicate.  When RB Antawn Jenkins dove over a Lehigh player into the end zone to punctuate Delaware's 33rd unanswered point after Lehigh briefly went up 10-7, I felt like I was smashed in the mouth, and I wasn't even suited up.

And that was Tubby Raymond, in a nutshell to Lehigh players, coaches and fans - a mixture of competitive verbal needling (that sometimes cut close to the bone), enough so that you wanted to see him beat more than any head football coach in America.  He tended to back up the talk with excellent teams - when Lehigh teams beat Delaware, these were not ordinary wins - they were gems, and when the Mountain Hawks lost to his teams, they were crushing.  And then, when the clock read 0:00, win or lose, Tubby would say something that made it hurt just a little bit less, allow you to regroup, and make you want to circle Delaware on the schedule for next year.




It was Colgate 28, Lehigh 14 as the first half was coming to a close. 

The Mountain Hawks had the ball, but the pall over Lehigh fans everywhere was very evident - "here we go again," most seemed to be thinking.

You couldn't blame fans necessarily for thinking that way, of course. 

The Mountain Hawks hadn't found out yet this year how to pull out a game like this, and normally, a two-touchdown deficit to Colgate feels like a four-touchdown deficit, the way they run the ball and gradually crush the spirit of opposing teams.

Driving and scrambling - somewhat of a broken play - junior QB Brad Mayes found junior RB Dominick Bragalone downfield with a big 35 yard touchdown pass, cutting the deficit to 28-21.

And then, gradually, over the course of a half of football, Lehigh put mistakes behind them just as the uncharacteristic mistakes by Colgate seemed to mount.  One Colgate touchdown would be called back.  Then another.  And Lehigh would battle back to tie the game twice, fall behind by a field goal with 5 minutes to play, and then score the winning touchdown and get a game's only turnover at the exact right time to preserve the win.

Somewhere, Al "Just Win, Baby" Davis was smiling.






It's something you ought to see once in your life, if you can, because it's unique, it exudes its own special energy, and it has an emotion and spectacle that many bowl games would dream to have.

The short version of the tale of the football Rivalry between Lehigh and Lafyette is simple: It's the most-played college football Rivalry in the world.

It's been waged every year, with only one interruption since 1884.

And the two schools, in competition in pretty much everything since the founding of Lafayette (1826) and Lehigh (1865), eventually coalesced around football as the main driver of The Rivalry between them.


*****

As in most meetings of The Rivalry, there were a lot of ill Lehigh fans wandering around the stands at halftime.

Not all of that illness is football-related, but the folks who live and die by this team were as well.

Down 24-14, victims of three first half fumbles, two of which were converted into Lafayette touchdowns, it almost fell like the wheels were coming off the Lehigh bus.  The energy in the stands was lacking.

The narratives were writing themselves - a young Lehigh team that made too many mistakes to win a big football game.  A team that more often than not couldn't get out of their own way enough to win a big game.  Only the win against Colgate, with all of those overturned touchdowns for the Raiders, would Lehigh have come from behind to win.

But in the second half, something happened.

Despite a Lafayette kickoff return for touchdown, the Mountain Hawks exploded for 344 yards of offense  and scored 24 points on offense in a variety of ways, none more spectacular than junior QB Brad Mayes' 41 yard bomb to senior WR Gatlin Casey to give Lehigh the lead with 7:49 to play.

In addition, Lehigh's defense emerged to put the hammer down on the Lafayette offense as well, with sophomore FS Riley O'Neil leading the charge with some big hits and senior DE Tyler Cavenas forcing Lafayette's young signalcaller, QB Sean O'Malley, into some missed throws.  Lafayette's offensive output was only 24 yards the entire second half.

Slowly, the momentum that was all Lafayette's started to turn.  By the end, no Lehigh fan felt ill anymore.

On a cold, wet, rainy Rivalry Saturday, a slick football no impediment, Lehigh came together just in time to rally to take the lead on Lafayette and ultimately win, 38-31.  In a way it's the perfect microcosm of their season in one game: start sloppy, and it seemed like, maybe, this thing was going to go off the tracks.  

But just in time, everything came together, and as a result, Lehigh are Patriot League Champions and will be practicing on Thanksgiving.

***

As satisfying as the half-ending stop was, Lehigh was still down by double digits at halftime, but they had that sliver of momentum going into the locker room.  And that is when, according to sophomore FS Riley O'Neil, junior QB Brad Mayes, and senior WR Gatlin Casey all said that Zach Duffy took things over.

"Personally, I think the biggest spark for me and the rest of the team came from the speech Duffy gave at halftime about the seniors - about how this could be their last game, and how we need to go out there, and do it for them," Riley said.  "With that in the back of our minds, that gave us a spark."

"The first half really didn't go as we planned," senior OL Brandon Short said.  "We went back in the locker room, and said we just needed to control what we can control, and take it one play at a time.  We weren't going to score 10 points on one play, so, we did that, and we did our job."

"I told Duff [at halftime], 'I'm hurt,'" Mayes said. "And [after that], I don't think there was a single Lafayette player near me the rest of the game.  That's a credit to those guys, the coaches did a great job of keeping me in the pocket and a great credit to my offensive line, doing an outstanding job up front."

"We were kind of shooting ourselves in the foot," Zach said.  "I told Brad at halftime, you're the best quarterback in this league, and you're going to have the half of your lifetime."

When pressed on what he said at halftime, Zach went into some detail.

"I really just called on the seniors," Duffy said. "I said this weeks ago, a team only goes as far as the senior class. Those guys really stepped up today, taking ownership of it. I really just couldn't be more proud of the team, the resiliency that we've had. Starting off 0-5, a lot of people gave up on us. So this position we were in [at halftime], it was fitting. We were used to being down. It's kind of the story of our season. We really turned it on and I couldn't be more proud of this team."

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