Rowan can wait–TCNJ: We got West Conn first
November 14 happens be its culmination, but the game scheduled that afternoon more closely embodies the climax of the Lions’ New Jersey Athletic Conference calendar.
The rivalry between the two programs is as bitter as they come, analogous to the irrevocable flavor that goes along with dismissal from the conference championship conversation—what the Lions have tasted now for weeks.
Fortunately for TCNJ—or Rowan, upon the finale of a different season, one it hoped might have turned out better—a win against the Profs can undo some of what did inflict disappointment on its 2009 campaign.
If nothing else, it’s just a game that players look forward to.
“No matter how good either team’s record is, it’s always a close game,” wide receiver Mark Gardner said over the phone. “It’s a big game.”
Gardner, one of the team’s senior leaders, says he was exposed to the sentiment early.
“My freshman year, [former Lions’ offensive coordinator] Coach [Rich] Alerico used to tell us, ‘We only play one team that’s puke orange—and that’s Rowan.’”
Now, two weeks removed from his career’s fourth installment of the series, the Texas-native’s enthusiasm pervaded his voice, his words themselves seething with anxiousness in advent of his last crack at the much-despised gang, hailing from Glassboro.
“It’s going to be the last game for the seniors and we’re going to leave it all out there. It’s going to be great. I’m excited.”
But, duly redirecting attention to the current text of his season, Gardner insisted that—for now—any such discussion overemphasizes a footnote, one that won’t be important until later.
“We have to deal with Western Connecticut first, though. I know their record isn’t great, but they’re a scary team. You don’t really know what to expect. You just don’t know what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it.”
Before they’ll hitch a ride down the New Jersey Turnpike for each program’s predestined engagement of mutual tenacity, Gardner and the rest of his TCNJ squad will welcome an inferior opponent to Lions’ Stadium—both with regard to prestige and bigger-picture implications.
This calendar year, Western Connecticut State (1-7, 1-6 NJAC) won its lonesome triumph two weeks ago, in an classic finish during which, it seemed, fate had slighted The College at Brockport.
With only 62 seconds remaining in the shootout—destined to produce 89 points—Colonials’ quarterback James Williams found his second-year tight end, sophomore Mike Keating, standing all alone in the end zone during a 3rd and goal play from the Golden Eagles’ three-yard line. After statisticians added the seven points that thrust Western Connecticut State ahead, 45-44, it represented the game’s ninth lead-change—a rare advantage that wouldn’t be relinquished.
Though most numerals beside the Colonials’ early-season outcomes indicate less decisive margins, often at the their expense—kind of like the 72-10 pounding it took from, coincidentally, Rowan University—the Lions’ locker room doesn’t show any signs of underestimation.
“The team as a whole, especially with the seniors, we only have two more games,” Gardner said in continuation. “We’re busting our butts [to make sure we’re ready].”
And, he says, the team’s elders aren’t the only ones acting that way.
“But also, Coach Ham’s been giving a lot of the younger guys time on special teams and they’ve been busting their butts. I don’t think anyone’s overlooking them at all.”
The unit’s collective focus is honorable, for sure. But, according to coaches—more mindful of recent past than future—they can’t justify any reason it would be.
“We lost the last three weeks in a row,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said. “We’re not interested in looking past anyone. We need to get a ‘W.’ I could care less who we’re playing in two weeks. We’re playing Western Connecticut this week.
“Losing focus looking ahead? I don’t think so.”
Offering his answer as an interruption to the prompting question, Hamilton’s staff emulated the same reaction.
“First things, first. Rowan doesn’t even come into the equation. We’ve lost three straight.” Lions’ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said—in an entirely separate telephone interview.
“We’ve got to beat Western Connecticut. Their record might not show it but they’ve got some players. If we’re not prepared to play, we’re going to be in for a long day.”
And that’s about exactly how Gardner and the rest of the program has approached this upcoming weekend—by all appearances an insignificant stepping stone. Trying to ready himself mentally for Saturday’s impending opponent, Gardner—both a diligent student toward classroom lectures and film study sessions—has noticed only one tendency based on what he’s seen.
“They bring the house on first down just as many times as they do on third down. That’s just how they are.”
But most advantageous to the Colonials, a vulnerability to unwary competitors, is their assumed attitude— an immeasurable ally that’s gradually fostered over the course of a season ridden with so many Ls.
“They’ve only won one game. They’ve got nothing to lose. That’s kind of scary.”