Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Raising the Bar

Lion Players Celebrate the Win over Fordham, 2006 (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)

How tough will it be for the Columbia Lions to repeat their success of 2006 and even improve upon it? Pretty damn hard, thanks to a much tougher schedule.

Columbia played six home games last year; in 2007 they'll go back to the normal slate of five games at Wien Stadium. But home may not feel so much like home when perennial Ivy powerhouses Penn, Yale, and Harvard come calling. The other two home games are against the very beatable Marist and the erratic Brown Bears, who could be resurgent next season.

The road schedule is rough too. The season opener at Fordham is certainly winnable, but the next two road games at Princeton and a nighttime affair at Lafayette will be a challenge. Dartmouth and Cornell round out the road schedule. Columbia has played pretty well at Dartmouth since 1998, but they still don't have a win at Memorial Field since 2001. Cornell was twice the team at home than they were on the road last season, which doesn't bode well.

Familiarity Breeds Comfort

They way Columbia's 3-5-3 defense confused opponents last season was a beautiful thing to behold. But some of that confusion is bound to be gone in 2007 as the other coaches and players get more used to it. And don't be surprised if some other Ivy schools start to experiment with the 3-5-3 themselves this season. I know the formation would make a lot of sense for at least half the league right now.

Nothing Motivates Like Fear

Don't listen to the bravado from the loud-mouthed supporters of Penn, etc. The fact is, the way Columbia played against most of the Ivy teams last season put the fear of God into a lot of opposing coaching staffs. For the Lions to recover from a 2005 season when they were destroyed by every Ivy club, (except Dartmouth), to playing competitively into the 4th quarter against every team was more than impressive... it was scary. You can bet the other Ivy schools will be working extra hard to prepare for Columbia this season.

Can We Replace Our Losses?

The young Lion underclassmen were all over the field last season, but don't forget most of the most solid play on defense came seniors Adam Brekke, Darren Schmidt, and Tad Crawford. They're gone now, and replacing them and their fellow seniors, Todd Abrams and Justin Nunez won't be easy. The big concern is up the middle, where Abrams at NT, Brekke at MLB, and Crawford at FS are all departing.

What it All Means

To post another 5-5 record in 2007, the Lions will have to be a better team than the squad that went .500 last season. There's little doubt of that. And to go 6-4 or better, the team will have to get much better, faster, and stronger. Saturday's spring game will give us some idea of how much they've accomplished so far and how much more work they all have to do over the summer.

The Good News is...

You didn't think I was going to let this be a downer post did you?

Columbia still has a lot going for it in 2007 and beyond. Here are some of the main highlights:

1) Coaching staff

New coaching staffs have invigorated Columbia in the past, but this group stands apart. The Lions last four non-losing seasons, (1996, 1994, 1971, and 1962), were all helmed by coaching staffs who had been around for several seasons before reaching that plateau. Norries Wilson and defensive coordinator Lou Ferrari were just too good on and off the field last season to be a flash in the pan. I also put a lot of stock in the fact that players like Bayo Aregbe, who left the team after the 2005, was so encouraged by Wilson and his staff that he's rejoining the squad this season.

The jury is still out on some of the supporting cast, like offensive coordinator Vinny Marino and some of the newcomers replacing the three assistants who moved on, (and up), to other jobs this offseason. But Columbia would have to completely implode in 2007 for these guys to lose their winners' glow. (Of course, that's exactly what happened to Bob Shoop and his staff in 2004 after the encouraging 2003 season. But could bad lightning strike twice?)

2) Young Lions be Free Tonight

Columbia had no less than six freshmen who were impact players in 2006. Wide receiver and Ivy Rookie of the Year Austin Knowlin got most of the attention, but I thought spur linebacker Andy Shalbrack could have easily won that award too if defensive players ever got an equal shot at postseason awards. Hot on Knowlin's and Shalbrack's heels was linebacker Justin Masorti, the man I think has the best shot at replacing Brekke when it comes to plugging up the middle of the Lion D. Knowlin, Shalbrack and Masorti are all potential All-Ivy players, while frosh like LB Lou Miller, DT Matt Bashaw, and WR Taylor Joseph rounded out the super class of 2010.

The super sophs were defensive lineman Phillip Mitchell, linebacker Drew Quinn, and kicker/punter Jon Rocholl. But I was also impressed by the yeoman work done by Jordan Davis at tailback and Mike Brune and Ralph DeBenardo on the offensive line.

These are a lot of underclass boldface names for any team at any level. If half of them raise their games in 2007, Columbia will probably get better enough to go 6-4.

John Witkowski, 1982 (CREDIT: IvyLeagueSports.com)

Call for Memories

Columbia's strong defense in 2006, coupled with a mostly challenged offense reminded me of the days when it was just the opposite. John Witkowski's Columbia teams of 1982 and 1983 had more offensive firepower than any CU team before, but the defense usually couldn't hold opponents very much at all.

How unbalanced were those teams? Well, check out the Columbia Athletic Department's
description of Witkowski's two greatest games in a Lion uniform and get an idea.

But if there are any players or fans from that era who remember these games or any others, I'd love to hear your comments below.


At Tue Apr 17, 05:52:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...


we'll learn a lot watching the spring game next week! The biggest question mark is who'll be taking the snaps next season? Is Olawale ready for Coach Marino's complex offense or can the transfer from Temple step in and be a player. When will Craig H be ready to go at full speed?

Our coaching staff is stable at the top. Coach Wilson and his 2 primary coordinators are back and the guys have had a year to pick up the system. The new strength coach will have had time to really work with the kids and hopefully we'll pick up some size and speed in the off season.

Your are right on defense. We've got to replace our strengh in the middle. Some guys will have to step up and we'll start seeing who is up to the task on Saturday!

If Hohrman is back for a full season next year then our future is bright! Especially with a stronger O-line and more depth at the tight end position. We'll run the ball better with a stronger line and that'll open up other opportunties.


At Tue Apr 17, 07:23:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

Yes, we will learn quite a bit Saturday... but we also must remember not to get carried away. Some of the standouts from the 2006 spring game didn't stick with the team. But I think this game will be different because I think Coach Wilson has the loyalty of these players and they all want to impress him.

At Tue Apr 17, 09:21:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will be out of the country on Saturday and will count on Jake, Dr. V and other astute observors to provide their nuanced observations. I expect to be much better this Fall. We had the best first years in the league, and they learned how to win.

At Wed Apr 18, 03:32:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I played in all of the games Wit's senior year and we certainly had more talent on the offensive side of the ball then defensively. The problem was we would score so quickly( because we had to) the defense would be worn out as they were on the field for the majority of the game. Besides the Holy Cross game, we were in all of them and much better then our record indicated. If my last onside kick didn't hit my roommate in the azz at 9 yards, we would have sent that Senior class out with a win.....

At Sun Apr 22, 09:22:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Your Dad said...

Always wish Witkowski, Reggio, and Lewis had arrived a year earlier. When they were inexperienced sophs ('81 season), we actually had a very good defense. Were leading or tied in the final minutes of four road games (Princeton, Holy Cross, Cornell, and Brown), all low scoring affairs, before falling to defeat in each one. If we (myself included) had been a little more productive on offense, a 5-5 ledger would have been reality.

Just like everybody else, I believe "would have"s are for losers. My point is, we had some stout defenders on the '81 team.

Props also to O-coordinator Dom Anile, who left a head coaching position at C.W. Post to come to Morningside Heights. He was a short little fat guy who more closely resembled a mob boss. What a job he did with the offense in '82 and '83.

Trivia: Name a Lion defender who has had an interception return of over 100 yards, and yet didn't score. All the more excrutiating was the fact that this occurred as time expired in the first half!!


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