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The verdict is out–nobody cares about TCNJ football

October 6, 2009

“Home.”

The term varies in weight, depending on who’s talking. For some it’s literal:  the precise location or mailing address of a residential dwelling. For others it’s relative:  a vague description of the indelible warmth and comfort enjoyed around family and friends.

But regardless of your perception of the term in its more practical sense, one thing’s for certain–in college football, there’s no place like it.

At an amateur’s highest level of competitive football, home-field advantage encompasses far more than, as Lions’ head coach Eric Hamilton put it, a slight difference in “the home cooking.” The pulse of a stadium, personified each and every Saturday in the image and likeness of a campus’ fan base, provides far more than a collage of friendly faces in the stands–it can help win ball games.

In the University of Miami’s case, an FBS program with a chokehold on the NCAA record for consecutive home conquests (58), that extra boost lasted a decade (Oct. 1985 through Sept. 1994) and aided the Hurricane’s three national championships during the span (1987, 1989, 1991).

Unfortunately for the TCNJ Lions, they wouldn’t know anything about that.

Among the scores of collaborative data listed on its web site, the NCAA posts weekly tallies of game attendance. According to these gross totals and averages, including percent relative to capacity, the “Lions’ faithful” doesn’t exactly qualify as a pious congregation.

At least not on Saturday, when it matters most.

Following its recent home stand, culminated upon the finale of the team’s firework display during its rout of NJAC-rival Morrisville State two weeks ago, the NCAA reports that the average Lions’ crowd tips the scales at an emaciated 700 fans per outing. Of Division III’s 235 teams, that figure rounds out a quartet of programs ranked 204th–inclusive of Husson (2-2),  Bluffton (0-4), and group’s lone .500+ representative aside from the Lions, Concordia Chicago (3-1).

Worse, based on its records for percent-to-capacity, the same report indicates that the program’s home games have attracted the 225th-fewest bodies in all the land. Lions’ Nation, statistically closer in parity to the  Monacos and Liechtensteins of Division III fan bases, has only purchased enough tickets to occupy 11.67% of Lions’ Stadium’s 18,000 seats.

Over the course of the entire season.

There’s no sugar-coating it–the numbers speak for themselves. And, according to players, they’ve noticed.

“Yeah, everybody can tell,” said hybrid receiver/tight end Bill Picatagi. “You can’t help but look up at the stands when you run out before a game and say Wow, there’s nobody here.”

The Hamilton, NJ-native insisted that the resounding lack of campus-wide enthusiasm hasn’t inhibited the team’s offensive firepower, an observation supported by the unit’s gaudy statistical rankings after the three-game stint, including its brief tenure as the nation’s top scoring machine. But he admitted that a vivacious crowd has its advantages.

“I don’t think it affects any of us really, at least for the offense,” he said. “Fan base or not, we’re going to go out there and play every week. But obviously the game would be louder, and as a player you feed off the crowd at certain times in the game. But not when you can hear crickets in the stands.”

Though empty bleachers might not concern Picatagi and the Lions’ offense, there’s reason to believe it might help the struggling defense–now dead-last in the NJAC in average yards allowed (447.5 ypg). Of the Division III’s programs consistently fielding its top-ten biggest crowds, three have emerged undoubted beneficiaries, consequently ranking among the nation’s best defenses in yards and points allowed.

The most recent report shows that Mount Union College (3rd in avg. attendance), the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (8th) and Wabash College (9th) coincidentally rank second, third and tenth, respectively in total defense–all allowing fewer than 235 yards per game. While Mt. Union and Wabash round out the bottom half of the nation’s 10 most stingy defensive units (7th and 10th in avg. points allowed), Wisconsin-Whitewater reigns supreme as the the NCAA’s toughest scoring defense, forfeiting just over a field goal every game (3.25 ppg).

Now in his second year at TCNJ, having transferred from a larger Division II school in Pace University, Picatagi has come to grips with the stark reality–for students at a small liberal arts college, football isn’t a part of this campus’ culture.

“We have great fans, but when you go to Kean or you go to Rowan [those team’s fans] are out there before we are. It would be awesome to have kids come out, that would be crazy. But that’s really not what we’re about.”

Though neither of the schools he mentioned made the list, the NJAC isn’t entirely unrepresented among the nation’s most grandiose stadium migrations.

Montclair State, currently tied for 1st in the conference standings, ranked 22nd in for attracting an average of just over 3,700 fans to both of 2009’s games played in Sprague Field. The reigning NJAC champs didn’t rank too far behind, their discipleship currently ranking 27th in the NCAA (Cortland State; avg. attendance 3,383 in 3 games).

Reasons for TCNJ’s apparently flaky fanaticism vary–why some spring out of bed, while others roll only within arm’s reach of their alarms’ snooze buttons, still set from earlier in the week. Some simply come because they like football–or don’t. Others are still suffering the residual headache, just hours removed from a wild Friday night.

For the gameday regulars, like health and exercise science major Ariana Laferlita, she’s well-accustomed to getting rowdy and reckless on Saturdays, dating back to her high school days.

“Football was always really big at my high school,” she said of her Alma mater, Middletown South high school. “So I’ve been used to watching the games.”

In LaFerlita’s case, fortunate enough to bear witness to a rare opportunity–following a classmate’s career that included a single-handed catapulting of his program to a state championship, decimating his SEC competition, and field a televised phone call during April’s 2009 NFL Draft as its 12th-overall pick.

Denver Broncos’ running back Knowshon Moreno ring a bell?

Three deceptively short years removed from her high school days, the senior says that now she’s driven to the gridiron by a vehicle of affection, rather than habit.

“Now that my brother’s playing, I go hoping that I’ll get to see him play,” she said via phone interview, referring to sibling free safety Joe LaFerlita, a freshman.

But not everyone shares her enthusiasm.

Shady Ahmed, a student from the same academic program, would much rather stay planted in the confines of his cozy on-campus apartment for his college football fix.

“D3,” the senior said matter-of-factly via instant message. “Is not as exciting as D1.”

Maybe not. But you can’t knock their effort.

Following a dominating season-opener, a deceptively close 47-31 win over Buffalo State, the Lions embarked on a two-week rampage of the school’s record books, first smashing a mark for one half’s worth of points (48 in 1st half) while accruing a laughable 708 yards of offense during its out-of-conference grudge match with FDU-Florham. A week later, the 11 offensive overachievers tore out the page dedicated to total scoreboard output–one that had lasted 88 years (67 pts. vs. Morrisville St.; originally 64 pts. vs. Cathedral in 1921).

Regardless of motive–or lack thereof–there’s no denying the prominent role of a loud and rambunctious fan-support in college football, and the likelihood of its continued absence from home games in Lions’ Stadium.

And for the Lions’ players, there’s likely not a whole lot they can do about it.

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