Monday, August 29, 2016

A wish list for Lafayette's Friday night opener at CCSU

Can  C.J. Amill get Lafayette's football season off to a fast start Friday night?

 Some things I’d like to see Friday night in New Britain, Conn., where Lafayette opens the 2016 football season against Central Connecticut State and hopes to break a six-game losing streak it carries over from last year:

A game-opening kickoff return for a touchdown – by C.J. Amill or Yasir Thomas.  I think either of these guys is as fast and as elusive as Matt Smalley, and I remember how Smalley electrified the Fisher Stadium folks on the opening KO of the 2013 season with a 98-yard return touchdown. Amill had 698 return yards in 2015, but no TDs. Thomas returned two punts for scores in his senior year in high school. No KO TD? I'd settle for a punt return TD. I'm not greedy, am I?

A four-wide-receiver set that has Matt Mrazek and Joey Chenoweth on one side and Nick Franzese and Yasir Thomas on the other. I think as a group, they would be uncoverable. Mrazek and Chenoweth combined for 90 receptions last season, but only four touchdowns. Franzese has been a guy on a mission in summer camp, where he and Mrazek have caught almost everything thrown their way. Thomas? Just watch him fly.

Five sacks from the defensive front seven. LB Brandon Bryant is a beast and can light up the place. While it would be nice to have Matt Rothrock at DT, the thought of a quick inside tandem of Lavel Ramsey and Andy Labudev teaming up with DEs Collin Albershardt and Beau Bosch is intriguing. It’s time for that Art Link 4-2-5 to assert itself.

Mike Donnelly
A game without a presnap penalty.  This is really wishful thinking, given the Leopards’ annual battle with this egregious offensive mistake. But I know Coach Stan Clayton has been constantly on his troops about their discipline. The left side is solid; on the right, Logan Grieser makes his first start after missing 2015 with an injury and Mike Donnelly fills in for injured Nick Zataveski. The 0-line is thin but perhaps the most athletic group the Leopards have ever had. Frosh Jake Marotti and Dylan Murphy came with great credentials. Both will certainly play. When they do, they’ll need to not let the moment overwhelm them.  

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rothrock, N. Zataveski injuries stun Leopards

You don’t have to scrimmage to be at risk of injury. Lafayette’s football team learned that painful lesson last year, and I’m sorry to say the phantom-injury bug has taken its toll on the Leopards again, with less than two weeks to go before the season opener.

When I greeted Coach Frank Tavani Thursday morning in Fisher Stadium, his first words were not something like “glad to see you,” but rather something more like “wait’ll you hear what’s happening again.”

By the count of the head coach, the Leopards have had 187 plays of “live” all-out scrimmage during the first 2 ½ weeks of preseason camp. Those plays, the equivalent of more than two full games, have been injury-free.

But when Lafayette opens the season on Friday, Sept. 2 in New Britain, Conn., against Central Connecticut State, two projected senior starters – offensive tackle Nick Zataveski and defensive tackle Matt Rothrock – won’t be in the lineup.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Pocono delivers again -- spread the news

This photo was taken DURING the race. Wide open space ... sad.
As Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Munoz and Joseph Newgarden chased one another down the main straightaway once again in virtual lock step at speeds of some 215 miles per hour at Pocono Raceway Monday afternoon, I wanted to break out in song.

With all due respect to the late, great Frank Sinatra, my reworked version of his iconic “New York, New York” would start out something like this:

Start spreadin’ the news,
I’m watchin’ today,
I want to be a part of it,
Long Pond, Long Pond.

Corny, yeah. But true.

A very small percentage of the originally expected crowd elected to stick around for the third Monday main event of the 2016 Pocono season. Chances are they weren’t sitting in front of their television sets and glued to the NBC Sports Network feed, either.

That was their loss.

The guys from the Verizon IndyCar Series put on a great show again, with Will Power producing Roger Penske’s ninth win on the Long Pond tri-oval.

Sure, it would be nice on a big track like Pocono to have a field of more than 22 cars, but it’s not always necessary to have the numbers.

It’s all about competition, and in that department, IndyCar is delivering.

Nine different drivers led, and the lead changed hands 29 times. It was a lightning quick event, too, taking just 2 hours, 46 minutes and 29 seconds, thanks to only four cautions for a total of 20 laps. The average speed was 180.198 miles per hour.

I was told that the ticket presale was going pretty well – until people began looking at long-range weather forecasts. As the prediction of rain persisted over a two-week period, sales dried up.

Now, the question is, how does the word get out so that the 2017 and 2018 events, which were announced within the past two weeks, turn the corner? Pocono certainly took a bath on this one. What are the odds of two NASCAR events and an IndyCar race ALL having to run on Mondays in the same year?

Back in May, when people turned out in almost historic numbers for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, the IndyCar crowd was talking about how that race was going to have a positive impact on the rest of the series.

I don’t see that happening. It certainly didn’t happen in the Pocono Mountains this week, even though the Pocono management has taken a bold step with its ticket pricing.

For me, these are still the only real race cars out there. The drivers in the series seem to be more fan-friendly than they have been in many other years, too.

The racing is terrific.

Watch for some sort of replay of the ABC Supply 500. Maybe it’ll get you singing, too.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lafayette Leopards get it when it comes to E.A.A.T.

Talk about teamwork! Lafayette's offensive line Angus Evans (81), Cam Smith (79), Connor Staudle (67), Kevin Zataveski (62), Mike Donnelly (66) and Nick Zataveski (68) are perfectly in synch as they and fullback Kyle Mayfield (25) lead the way for running back DeSean Brown on Thursday. 
The football team’s slogan for the 2016 season is E.A.A.T. – and it has nothing to do with calorie intake.  It stands for Effort-Attitude-Accountability-Toughness.

After Thursday’s practice in Fisher Stadium, I talked with four members of the team. I asked each of them the same question: Which of the four aspects of that slogan means the most to you?

Here are their answers.

DESEAN BROWN, Junior running back – “I’d say effort because it’s something you can control. All of them can be controlled, but I think effort is the biggest thing because it’s something you can teach yourself. Some people don’t have the mentality to be a tough guy, and and some people just don’t grow up being accountable for things they do. I think effort is something you can teach yourself. Go out there and play hard whenever you want to.”

DREW REED, Senior quarterback – “I think they all feed off one another. If you come out with the right attitude you’re going to put forth the right effort. Attitude, I think, is maybe the biggest one. If you have the right attitude, you’re going to put forth the effort and you’re going to be tough. You’re going to be accountable if you have it, because you’re going to be doing the right thing. Attitude is the biggest one because they all play off of that one.”

BEAU BOSCH, Junior defensive end – “It’s hard to sort one out because they play off of each other. but I would say it would have to be accountability. Being able to have your teammates count on you to do your 1/11th and effort, toughness… it’s really hard to pick one.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Heat is forcing changes in Lafayette football practice plans

Tomorrow (Thursday) is the first day of full-pads practice for the Lafayette football team, and since I was planning to be there, I called Coach Frank Tavani tonight to arrange to meet with him.

Good thing I called. I found out that Thursday's practice, originally scheduled for 4:15 p.m., has been moved up to 8:45 a.m. (Period 0), with the official practice starting about 20 minutes later.

The reason for the switch: the humidity that is sapping the team on the hot afternoons. Tavani told me that linemen are sometimes wearing two pair of shoes in one practice -- they actually change in the middle of the workout because their feet are getting soaked from sweat and the shoes are put into the dryer. And these guys are in SHAPE!

The weather forecast for the next few days is not a lot different, and Tavani told me, "If we have to go at 5 a,m., we can turn on the lights and do that" in order to avoid the hottest time of the day.

Friday is the first scheduled two-practices day, and a scrimmage is currently scheduled for 10:15 a.m. Saturday.  Those schedules were being discussed tonight, and you might get some updated information in my story in the Friday Morning Call.

So, stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The road back is long and hard, but Kaizer Butler has the right stuff

Kaizer Butler stretches during a spring practice. 
Lafayette football coach Frank Tavani told me about returning from a recruiting trip one night and, from his office in the Bourger Varsity Football House, seeing someone running around on the practice field behind the visitors' grandstand in Fisher Stadium.

"It's dark back there and it's late at night," Tavani said. It's HIM. I had to stop him."

The "him" to whom Tavani was referring is defensive back Kaizer Butler. "He works so hard and he really gets everybody going," Tavani said of the Californian who worked his way into the starting lineup for the Leopards during his first preseason camp a year ago.

Butler, who is recovering from a near-fatal bout with granulomatosis with polyangiitis, a rare autoimmune disease that affects only three of every 100,000 people in the United States. While there is a list of symptoms, there is no known cause of the disease. Neither is there a cure.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Lafayette's first summer-camp practice: 10:15 a.m. Saturday

The offensive line will get plenty of work on the blocking sled.
Well, here we are, ready to go. The Lafayette football players arrive on Friday – the freshmen in the morning, upperclassmen in the afternoon – and their first get-together is a full-team dinner tonight. A full-team meeting also will be held tonight.

The first practice – helmets only – is set for 4:15 p.m. Saturday in Fisher. After a day off on Sunday, it’s helmets again at 4:15 Monday, uppers (shoulder pads) on Tuesday and Wednesday and the first full-pads practice at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, the 11th of August.

A Saturday morning practice (10:15 a.m. Aug. 13) is expected to include a scrimmage with officials … the college’s Media Day, which will feature another scrimmage, is Thursday, Aug. 18, 10:15 a.m. so that seniors can meet with the media at lunch following the practice.

Orientati0n for the freshmen begins on Friday, Aug. 26, so a 7:05 a.m. practice is on the schedule.  The upperclassmen also will practice at 8 p.m. that day.  Classes begin Aug. 29, but by that time the Leopards will be well into preparations for the season opener against Central Connecticut State on Friday, Sept. 2 in New Britain, Conn.

I haven’t had a chance to really digest the media guide which was passed out at the Patriot League’s Media Day earlier this week. But I can tell you one thing: five freshman are listed on the two-deep chart in the book.

None of the five is on the first unit, but the second team offensive line includes rookies Jake Marotti (6-6, 295) and Dylan Murphy (6-5, 295). Penciled in on the defense are safety Tre Jordan (6-0, 195), a former Notre Dame-Green Pond High School quarterback, and strong safety Dmitry Smith (6-0, 190). Stewart Hackleman (6-3, 240) is listed as a backup long snapper.

That’s not to say that the incoming class doesn’t have other players who will certainly see playing time, but the o-line, which took a big hit and lost three members over the summer, and the defensive secondary, which also lost a key piece (Kaizer Butler) for 2016 for medical reasons, and two other players who who were among the top four tacklers on the team a year ago, may need attention sooner rather than later, even though that is not Coach Frank Tavani's favorite game plan.

Last year, freshmen who started games for the Leopards included WR Joey Chenoweth,  TE Angus Evans, and tackle Tanner Kern on offense, and Jerry Powe, Kaizer Butler and Clay Rush in the defensive secondary. 

The Leopards received the ultimate snub from their Patriot League buddies when they were shut out when the league announced its preseason all-league team. 

Brandon Bryant takes on a tackling ring during a spring drill.
I can’t believe the league coaches and sports information directors didn’t take notice of linebacker Brandon Bryant, who was a second team pick in 2015 and was among the country’s top five tacklers with 114. The last Leopard to have more tackles in one season was Maurice Bennett, who had 133 in 2005 – a championship season. Bryant is a beast, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t be even better this year than last.

I was asked this week about the television package for 2016, and , Gary Laubach who’s back for his 20th season as the play-by-play guy for the RCN crew that covers the games for the Lafayette Sports Network, told me that eight of the games will be televised by the LSN.  Unfortunately, for some odd reason, Central Connecticut State is not permitting a telecast of the opener. Other games not on the schedule are Army West Point, which has its own TV deal, and Fordham, which is being carried by Campus Insiders as part of the Patriot League Network package. Gary and Mike Joseph will be teaming up for another banner year in the booth, and John Leone is again expected to be on the sidelines.

OK, enough of the set-up stuff. Let’s get on with it.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Catching up on Patriot League Media Day

The Lafayette football media package for 2016 includes nifty schedule cards. I saw them for the first time on Tuesday at the Patriot League’s Media Day program at Green Pond Country Club.

The thing that really got my attention is the fact that the college has two versions of the cards. One features senior quarterback Drew Reed, which makes sense because he’s listed No. 1 on the depth chart and his resume includes a series of outstanding 2013 performances that carried the Leopards to the league championship.

The second version features senior quarterback Blake Searfoss. Say what?

The card says, “Fisher Stadium will ROAR.”  But, do we have a quarterback controversy?

“They’re both seniors; they’re both very talented quarterbacks, and both have won games for us,” Coach Frank Tavani told me. “One of them has to step up for us.”