TCNJ vs. Rowan: Need I say more?
It’s 5:25 on Thursday. A mob of football players drifts away from Lions Stadium.
Practice has just ended.
The air is brisk, a perceivable breeze drops the temperature a few degrees. It’s dark out, a probable materialization of winter rolling in.
And football rolling out.
With the crowd that approaches comes clarity. The diminishing distance accentuates individual dialogue, now distinguishable from the noise of small-talk banter.
Tired, bruised and spent—in each term’s every conceivable sense—there’s no energy left for filtering these vocalized thoughts.
Unencumbered reactions evoke truth, you’d like to think.
“The Rowan rivalry?” wide receiver Mike Camastra asks, his words skewed by a telling facial expression and all its insinuations.
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he continues, laughing and walking on.
Still a freshman, Camastra’s answering that kind of question—cordial, yet flippant—is understandable. Had he been around last year, his response might have sounded something like…
“Nah dude, they embarrassed us last year,” wide receiver Dan Syed said after, a halfhearted scolding for the irreverent dismissal. “We ain’t about to let that happen again.”
Pandemonium strikes Texas’ northern border once a year for the Red River Rivalry with the Sooners of Oklahoma—just as it does along informal state lines in Oregon, for annual installments in its on-again, off-again “civil war.”
Stanford has Cal, the Gators have the ‘Noles, and Notre Dame has…well…everybody.
And, pertaining to the New Jersey Athletic Conference, TCNJ has Rowan.
“If you haven’t been to a TCNJ/Rowan game, you haven’t seen a real football game,” Lions’ utility player Bill Picatagi said over the phone.
“Like I can’t explain it,” he continues, his words mirroring his distracted stream of consciousness on the topic.
“There’s so much emotion that goes into it, it’s ridiculous. … This last week of practice is supposed to be an easy week? No way. Not for TCNJ because we’ve got Rowan, and Rowan’s huge.”
“Since I’ve been here, Rowan’s been one of the biggest games every single year,” wideout Colin Weber said, recollecting his past three years of involvement.
“Records, they don’t matter or anything. Everyone practices hard all week, just because it’s Rowan.
“And everyone comes to play against Rowan.”
The rivalry is as heated as they come. No matter how harsh a toll the long season has taken on their bodies, players willingly bite down a little harder on those mandatory rubber mouthguards, hoping it can help muster up anything and everything within physiological possibility.
And then some.
“I’m gonna give it all I got on Saturday,” defensive end Craig Meyer said. “It’s gonna be another emotional day on my mind, it’s my last game ever. I’m gonna play my ass off.”
But, unfortunately for TCNJ, players’ “effort” isn’t a word that always translates in football’s most audibly aesthetic language.
Over the past 20 years, the Lions have stolen all of five match-ups since 1989, three by a combined six points (28-27 in ’98; 22-20 in ’03; 10-7 in ’07). Over the course of the series, dating back to 1948, twice have the Profs dominated for half a decade, first putting together six consecutive wins between 1990 -95, before establish five-year streak of inter-conference authority between 1998 and 2002.
Through a grander scope, the series has seen about as much parity as the Fighting Irish’s win percentage against Southern Cal’s crimson army—under Pete Carroll or anyone else. After an even 50 confrontations, Rowan’s 32 wins exactly double TCNJ’s isolated glimmers of glory, rounded out by two unsightly ties (12-12 in 1949, 21-21 in 1974).
And “last year,” otherwise a trite irrelevance in conversation, refers to the 42-3 smack-down Rowan gladly inflicted upon the Lions in 2008, a blowout loss to cap a dismal 4-6 season tinged with mediocrity.
“Last year, we came out hard in practice for the entire week,” Picatagi said of the week prior. “And when we got on the field, we [messed] the bed. They came out and they whopped our ass[es]. One-on-one, they physically destroyed us. It’s the god’s honest truth.
“And you know what? We’re not letting that happen this year.”
Standing on that same precipice just three days before that anniversary, there exist only two focal points for eyes of TCNJ football players. Downward, just over the cliff’s sheer edge, exists nothingness. And the stark reality holds true for returners, who’ll live to fight another day—“next year”—and seniors, whose eleventh-hour push to go out on top, as winners…better…spoilers is as exhausted as the group’s eligibility.
“It would definitely suck,” co-captain wideout Cam Richardson said, though he insisted he didn’t want a loss to mar his waning collegiate moments.
“I mean, no matter who you play it’s gonna suck because it’s your last game, you wanna go out winning and have a little bit of a bittersweet thing going. …. But it would definitely suck to lose to Rowan.”
But outward, a complimentary structure stands, too, a rare offering of a different avenue of fate.
As distinct a contrast between the beginning and end of the Lions’ season, the neighboring metaphorical hill offers hope for TCNJ’s youth—an irrevocable foundation upon which they can rebuild the program.
And grow as individuals.
“It’s never the last week,” head coach Eric Hamilton said. “It happens to be the last game, but it’s never over. You prepare every week for the next game. Well after this game, then we prepare for next year—and not before.”
As for those that won’t be back, well, the scene is about as cliché as it gets. In the present, the sun is set. But in this enticing image of timeless glory, there’s a stable of horses, waiting to be rode off into the horizon, that central star fixed forever in place, hours before dusk.
“We’ve had a little bit of a sour year, a little upsetting,” Weber said. “But it would be great to finish on this note. Yeah, we can’t change the past; we’ve just got to make the best of what we still have. Beating Rowan would end this on a good note.”