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Lions’ Offensive Pre-game Preview: James hopes to silence another year’s worth of friendly quips from familiar faces

September 16, 2009

Friday night–like every other rung on the team’s upward climb to return to the top of the New Jersey Athletic Conference–offers the 2009 TCNJ Lions an opportunity.

It offers a shot to cultivate a culture of success–privately around the locker room, overtly surrounding the program. It forges the juncture to prove to fans–and themselves–that they’re capable of doing so.

Provided the deflating fashion of the team’s defeat versus this week’s opponent but one, deceivingly short year ago–allowing a touchdown with :16 remaining en route to a 41-42 tearjerking loss–this weekend’s inter-conference showdown also sets the stage for a long-awaited shot at redemption.

But for its quarterback, fourth-year starter Chris James, there’s much more riding on this week’s grudge-match against Fairleigh Dickinson University-Florham.

“Bragging rights,” he said simply, via phone interview.

See, James undoubtedly fit the bill as the type of guy you’d expect to circle the rematch on the calendar–regarded as a voracious team-first field general and a self-defined “stickler” regarding his individual performance. But he didn’t need to.

His hometown buddies–several of James’ high school teammates who play for the Dickinson Devils–wouldn’t let him forget it.

“When we lost, I heard about it a lot over the summer,” James admitted about the off-season barrage of not-so-subtle reminders. “You could say they let it be known.”

The jeers resonated from a number of notable names listed on the Devils’ roster, including quarterback Bill Winters among other Brick Memorial graduates. And James wasn’t shy about vocalizing what its meant to him.

“It’s fired me up,” he said, yearning to alleviate 365 days’ worth of bottled emotion. “I’ve been looking forward to this game since last year after we lost to them.”

According to him, the attitude isn’t his own. There’s a few other guys in the Lions’ locker room that feel the same way.

“This is about everybody–the whole team. We all know what happened, we know we slipped up, and it’s not gonna happen this year.”

Though his motivation of the rivalry’s 11th installment isn’t to settle a score, one of James’ closer buddies, Dickinson free safety Dan Labrutto, couldn’t help but vocalize his excitement to face his former teammate at the college level.

“This is one of the games I look forward to every year,” he said, via phone interview. “It’s one of those friendly rivalries that we play and [Chris and I] have been playing against each other since we were little.”

Sure their history on the field has its roots, as the two competed against or battled side-by-side each other since their Pop Warner days. But Labrutto and James have fostered a close personal relationship off the field, one that Labrutto openly admitted enhances his pre-game hype, in advent of this weekend’s contest.

Especially since Lions’ Stadium will likely spotlight the inevitable chess match between the two.

“It adds a lot,” he said. “He’s a quarterback and I’m a safety. I have to read him and he has to read me. It’s one of those things where it’s just gonna be fun out there. It really is. It’s exciting.”

Though neither would offer the ready-for-corkboard quote capable of igniting locker room fury, both players enunciated their eagerness to top the other–warm acquaintances outside the lines, cutthroat adversaries between them.

“There’s no doubt he’s one my best friends,” James said of his relationship with Labrutto. “But, come game day we’re not going to take it easy on one another. We’ll be pulling out all the stops.”

Labrutto managed to contribute two interceptions in the Devils’ season-opener, a 28-33 loss to MAC-rival Alfred University, and he’s hoping to reproduce a similar effort this weekend–especially against such a familiar opponent.

“Hopefully I can get a couple,” he said, the tone of his voice indicative of a wide-eyed grin. “Maybe one, but it would be exciting to get one against him. I’ve just got to go out there and do my best and we’ll see what happens.”

James, who delivered a steadfast 2008 performance against the Devils (13/25, 185 yds, 2 TDs), would certainly enjoy a gaudy individual stat-sheet finish, but yards, completion percentage and passer efficiency aren’t his priority. He cares plenty about the numbers–just ones located on a different page.

“I’ve got to prove to myself every week that I can continue to get better and better every week,” he said, prepared to hold himself accountable for his actions this Friday, like he did for last week’s third-quarter interception. “Stats-wise, it doesn’t even matter. It’s all about us winning the ball game.”

Players on both teams will look to settle scores–personal and otherwise–under the Friday-night lights at Lions’ Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7pm.

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