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Lions out, but not down–TCNJ: We ain’t about to quit

October 28, 2009

What a difference a week makes.

That’s got to be this week’s theme, doesn’t it? What better lede to unravel this untimely twist to the Lions’ once-promising campaign? The dagger of a homecoming defeat compounded with its heartwrenching fashion–even the weather maintained par with the purple prose dampening the conference’s No. 1  squad imposed on players and their season gone awry.

In true New Jersey fashion, the state-school’s football program double-dipped entering competition early in the season–reigning atop the NJAC leader board, synchronously tenured as the NCAA’s scoring kingpin (after Wk 4). Hopes have shifted, in both plausible impact and pleasure doing it.

For a team once looking to perpetuate its three-game winning streak, the remaining three games on its schedule present, at best, a chance to pay similar gloom forward to other hopeful contenders (Rowan, Cortland St.; 3rd, 4th in NJAC).

Likely? No, anticipated. Or better yet, expected.

But even in its dust-settling aftermath, disheartened and drained from the emotional tumult experienced minutes before, not a soul dared to submit. Nor would a single Lion turned its back on its pride–both the term’s appropriation on the streets, and in the animal kingdom.

“Absolutely not,” quad-captain Cam Richardson said, when posed that question. “We’re playing for each other out there. Obviously you want to win every game but we understand that we can’t. That’s not always going to happen for us.”

Fate may have predetermined his injury, suffered back during his 2009 season-opener-turned-closer. But neither destiny, nor a triad of Ls on TCNJ’s schedule–next to Montclair State, William Paterson, and Kean universities–could avert his determination.

“We’re not going to let down, we’re going to keep the intensity up and we’re going to finish the season out. We’ll be alright.”

Misfortune in his final year in Trenton magnify the season’s most pertinent disappointments, as  Richardson’s third All-NJAC honors (2nd-team in 2008; honorable mention in 2007) likely escaped him as early as the first half of TCNJ’s’ Week 1 win over Buffalo State. Players’ eager anticipation of meaningful competion ended for his teammates, but that relief would pass the slot receiver by. A high ankle sprain extended his jitters extended for over a month after he pulled up lame that now-distant September afternoon.

His story parallels that of a fellow quad-captain, senior free safety Ryan Flannery. Well familiar with the angst of missing time already, he suffered his half-season-long ailment even before record-implicit action, going down during August training camp. After he, too, tweaked an ankle, the cerebral leader of his defense traded his helmet and shoulder pads for a clipboard and a pair of cupped hands–perfect for echoing his supportive voice.

“In the NJAC it’s always usually a one-game season,” he said, privy to the consequences of earlier let-downs. “If you lose two games you know you’re pretty much done. So you attack every game like it’s a playoff game. Even now I don’t think we’ll take a different approach.”

According to the NCAA, Pac-Man Flan maintained a year of eligibility when he redshirted in 2007, sidelined for that season with a crippling hip-flexor tear. Well in the midst of his first of two remaining academic semesters at TCNJ, however, the culmination of 2009 will likely mark the end to his athletic career.

But, as he optimistically noted, there’s still football to be played–a final chapter to be written.

“We got Cortland next week and they’re the defending NJAC champs,” he said, still speaking with definitive purpose after his unit’s historic defensive performance couldn’t salvage the game–or the season.

He continued, his tone shifting toward more selfless fixations on importance of wrapping up a reputable season.

“I know that [Cortland State is] not what they used to be, but we’re going to try and go out pretty strong and win the last three games. If we can do that we’ll have some momentum going into next year.”

There will be tomorrow for other Lions, among them strong safety Shawn Brown–a star rising as abruptly as he’s sent those daring to contest the junior packing. Straight to the turf.

“We’re going to finish the season strong,” he said sternly, much more accustomed to dropping his shoulder during games than dropping knowledge after them. “There’s not much else I can tell you about that.”

Not to undermine each remaining game’s indisputable importance, but with regard to “next year,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton expects much more 2009’s last-Saturdays, as opposed to its every-other-days.

“If you win out, there’s good chance you might get an ECAC game,” he said via phone interview, alluding to the likelihood of a consolation game before his intended point of emphasis. “At the very least—last year we ended with a blowout loss to Rowan. If you can turn that around, it could a.) knock them out of the conference [championship contention] or b.) just a world of difference entering spring ball from last year. We just got to keep rolling, keep going. And I think they will. I think they know they’re pretty damn good as a whole.”

But, quick to admit that such awareness has its potential for detriment, the second-year defensive play-caller stressed the importance of embodying humility from here on out. Especially now that his unit has started to perform.

“They’re feeling it, they just can’t get complacent,” he said of his defense that limited the No. 1 Montclair State University Red Hawks to 32 yards rushing on 29 carries–fewer than 200 total yards. Now, complete with the emergence of his finally stout defense–a long-awaited compliment to the season’s consistently hearty offensive attack–is not the time to disengage on account of 2009’s lone glimmer of apogee.

“It’s just one game. They’ve got to have a couple here to end it. We played one game out of seven. That’s not a very good ratio. Considering if you want to turn it around and look at our offense, they’ve played well six out of seven games. That’s what we want to get to.”

A destination, he says, is inevitable–based on his side’s initial addiction to the euphoria those games tend to provoke.

“They’ve got a taste of it, they’ve got a little experience in doing it, maybe they’ve got a little arrogance to them—which isn’t the greatest. But if you can take that arrogance and knock it down into cockiness and confidence, that’s the kind of attitude you want to have defensively.”

Hell, even he likes the feeling–one of comforting warmth that’s ensuring him this season’s end should parallel the its early success.

“Feels a whole lot better on the weekends after a performance like that than it does playing terribly like we did against Brockport and winning,” he said. “We just got to keep the ball for our offense, which is damn good. If we play like that we’ll win out.”

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