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TCNJ’s future brightened in spite of dismal present

November 9, 2009

Never would a football coach–at least not one to be taken seriously–concede any remnants of the present, shifting focal gears toward the future.

Never.

Well, maybe there’s a few extenuating exceptions.

“We have to put the pieces together and get ready for Rowan now,” TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta said Saturday, in the immediate aftermath of defeat. “That could be ours to win if we work hard.”

Daddies on the sidelines of Pop Warner scrums, or tenured (and salaried) collegiate football instructors might differ in prestige and popularity. But the attitude remains constant at all levels of the game.

Win, and win now.

So long as there is a snap yet to be played, there are goals to achieved, progress to be made.

Players feel no differently.

For some, the light at the end of the tunnel widens, the stark reality that their careers are finite becomes increasingly more apparent with every passing week. For seniors, there is no tomorrow. Still, the passage of time for others glistens the eyes of youngsters, well-aware of this reality:

Graduation empties shoes that need filling, chances for them to shine.

While TCNJ’s season suddenly spun in a downward spiral after its Week Six win against The College at Brockport, players have conducted their business without relent–kind of how fate and misfortune have treated them.

But, largely a byproduct of their hardships, the team has been forced to turn to its youth early. The epidemic to which all football squads are susceptible–the injury bug–has pillaged the Lions’ roster, robbing depth from its charts, and precious moments from elder players.

And in that continuous spin of the wheel, magnified during Saturday’s upset loss to Western Connecticut State, sometimes players’ chances are thrust to the forefront. Sometimes sooner than they’d anticipated.

“This is why you coach, because of challenges,” Acosta said Friday, in advent of a gut-check game for a few underclassmen. “That’s why you coach. To teach and see people grow. Our team’s been growing in a lot of different ways, and this is why you do this.

“We have a challenge tomorrow. And I’m pretty fired up about that challenge.”

For coaches–notably locked in on the season’s finale at Rowan with indelible fixation–when these players exceed even their most ambitious hopes, they’ll say it’s one of the game’s most rewarding facets.

“That’s the bright spot,” he said after, asked to gauge the performance of some of his emerging talents.

“A bunch of guys on the offensive line, they’re coming back. Running backs are coming back, quarterback’s coming back. … That’s the bright spot. Guys are working, young bucks are getting more playing time. You definitely are going to have a football team next year.”

If there was any positive to be taken from Saturday’s game—a disheartening three-point loss to wrap up several illustrious senior careers in Lions Stadium—the promise evoked by some of its youth put to bed a few of the question marks remaining at the season’s end.

“Our offensive line, I think this was one of their best games all year,” sophomore quarterback Jay Donoghue said, moments removed from his first collegiate start. “And most of those guys are coming back.”

Singing the praises of his protective barrier of bodies, Donoghue himself earned daps from some of the team’s most respected personalities after his outing last weekend.

“I was really impressed with Jay Donoughue’s play today,” wide receiver Cam Richardson said of the future-made-present’s 21-of-28 afternoon, complete with 194 yards and three gorgeous touchdown throws.

“I thought he played a very good game. Very calm, collected. He made a lot of checks out there. He really impressed me, going out there and doing some things working with the first team. I was really impressed at that.”

Well-deserving of the acclaim, Donoghue wasn’t the only one turning heads Saturday.

“Mike Yetka, hell of a running back,” Donoghue said of the Lions’ junior running back, who has led the team in successive weeks in his season’s only two starts, putting up 117 this past weekend (41 rush yds vs. SUNY-Cortland). Surpassing the century mark for the first time since the season-opener, the milestone marks only the third of his still budding career.

“Kevin’s a solid young guy too,” he continued, noting the stellar progression of the freshman short-yardage-option-turned-many-yardage-threat. In his past three appearances, the Atlantic City native has averaged a steady 7.6 carries, good for a reputable 34.4 yards—not much. But moving the sticks an average of 4.47 paces after every touch suggests that, when he’s given a heavier load he’ll be as productive as needed.

Both players have toiled to adequately compensate for the Lions’ backfield woes, losing starters in Justin Donoloski and Chase Misura for every snap since they each went down during the school’s homecoming loss to Montclair State University.

Across the line-of-scrimmage, a few notable faces among the preseason’s raw defensive talents have come into their own of late.

“We’ve had a lot of guys go down, a lot of guys step in,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said during the week before the team’s road trip to SUNY-Cortland.

“It’s going to pose some good problems for us as coaches down the road.”

For now, issues surrounding a gifted few aren’t ones the Lions’ staff needs to deal with. The biggest ones are those made for the other guys.

TCNJ linebacker Greg Burns, who has led all Lion tacklers twice over the course of his first collegiate season (10 tot. tackles vs. WPU, WCSU), finishing second in the unit’s stingiest outing to date (9 tot. tackles vs. MSU). His physicality and instincts established the freshman as a viable suitor for Hamilton’s intricate 4-2-5 scheme—reliant upon the run-stopping abilities of its second-level players.

Despite their prominence as a buoyant feature of what were ultimately losing efforts, Burns earned NJAC awards two of the three following Sundays, dubbed its Defensive Rookie of the Week twice in 2009.

Over that four-game span, that’s called upon unknown bodies to fill the roles of proven talents, the only other player to twice outperform his comrades was, coincidentally, linebacker Jimmy Kleen.

He shared locker room bragging rights with Burns during the team’s Week Seven road loss at William Paterson after blanketing the hash marks for 10 tackles of his own. A week later, onlookers gazed out in confusion, wondering if his team-leading nine stops against Red Hawk skills players was a palpable instance of déjà vu.

Both Burns and Kleen saw sparse action in the season’s first-six outings. But answering the call dialed in by linebacker Joe Spahn’s season-ending foot injury and chronic ailments to a warrior in Dan DeCongelio, the two have exceeded their foreseen capabilities–much to the delight of coaches.

“That’s the silver lining of a lot of guys being hurt,” Hamilton said, days preceding this weekend’s game against Western Connecticut. “It gives an opportunity to a lot of different guys to get playing time.”

Burns and Kleen on display as exhibits 1 and 1-a, their still minimal resumes have put his once-worried mind a little more at ease.

“So we’ve put in so many different guys, that no matter who we put out there we feel comfortable and we feel like we’ve got a complete package.”

And who stepped up during the only other game in that four-week period? Its leader in tackles against SUNY-Cortland—also the Lions’ most productive pass rusher—was defensive end Kevin Allgood, a monster compliment to team quad-captain Craig Meyer.

Allgood is a sophomore.

If a football season is a machine, one needing fresh oil and replacement parts on an annual basis, the off-season’s most pivotal challenge will be replacing experienced leaders, like Richardson and Meyer. It won’t be any easier to swap out the veteran savvy of four-year starting quarterback Chris James.

And, above all else, there’s no substitute for free safety Ryan Flannery, likely the program’s most entertaining superstar in recent memory—even though his chippy style of play and nose for extra-curriculars get him in trouble from time to time.

“We’re definitely gonna miss our senior receivers,” Donoghue said of the seasoned corps, including a montage of playmaking breeds in Mark Gardner, Erik Hendrickson, Bill Picatagi and Colin Weber—the latest of whom ranks fifth in the conference in receptions and yards.

“They’re some of the best there is.”

For guys like Donoghue, who—in time—might embody a similar description one day, the future is enticing to say the least. But, spanning from broken-in seniors to the fresh sets of kicks still in their freshman shoeboxes, that prospect will have to wait.

“It’s promising for next year,” Donoghue said.

“But we’re playing for this year.”

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