October 5, 2011

Following the leaders

More news about: Kean
Senior Jamahl Williams has broken up five passes from his safety spot for Kean so far this season.
Kean Athletics Photo by Larry Levanti

As Kean coach Dan Garrett conducted his exit interviews following a disappointing 5-5 campaign last season, he noticed a recurring ingredient many players felt was missing -- leadership.

With 20 rising seniors returning, Garrett debated different ways to best utilize their collective leadership abilities. What he came up with was a first for him as a coach.

Instead of naming three or four captains for the entire season, Garrett instead opted to name captains for individual games. Through four games this season, the Cougars have had 12 different game captains. It's worked.

The Cougars have won all four of their games, including key wins over ranked opponents in Wesley and Cortland State in back-to-back weeks to open the season.

"Last year we didn't have the chemistry," Garrett said from his office Monday afternoon. "We just didn't have it in the locker room. We didn't have it on the field. It didn't mean we didn't have talent, but this year we have that chemistry."

That chemistry has helped the Cougars climb from a team that didn't receive a single vote in the preseason D3football.com Top 25 poll, to a team that's ranked 10th in the country just five weeks later.

And Kean has managed to win in a variety of ways this season. A low-scoring slugfest? Check -- this past Saturday's 7-6 win over TCNJ. A high-scoring, yet still comfortable win? Got it -- a 44-33 win over Western Connecticut two weeks ago. A seemingly improbable upset over a more talented squad? You bet -- a 31-28 win over Wesley in the season opener. How about, just for good measure, a come-from-behind win against another higher-ranked opponent? Of course -- a 21-16 victory over Cortland.

"The thing that's really not seen on paper is our kids' resiliency," Garrett said. "They just don't get flustered and they don't panic. They just have a great composure."

Leadership, composure, raw talent -- the Cougars seem to have everything you look for in a legitimate playoff contender. But Garrett will be the first to tell you -- it wasn't always this way. With improved success since Garrett took over as head coach in 2006, the Cougars have seen the benefits in recruiting and now boast the deepest team in school history.

From the program's first season in 1970 through 2005, the results were modest -- only seven winning seasons, two NJAC championships (one shared) and two ECAC appearances (one win in 1994). Over the nine-year period from 1996-2004, Kean compiled a paltry 14-73 record.

Since Garrett took over the reins, the Cougars have gone 37-20 with three ECAC appearances (wins in 2006 and 2009). But the team still seeks that elusive first NCAA playoff berth. Garrett is counting on his seniors to lead the Cougars to it.

Garrett points to left tackle Dave Vermeuel, center Jamie Pratt and right guard Dave Galante, all seniors that have served as game captains at some point this season, as key cogs offensively. The same can be said defensively about safety Jamahl Williams, middle linebacker Bekim Bujari and nose tackle Ray Wegrzynek, all seniors that were named captains for specific games.

Tom D'Ambrisi has thrown just four interceptions in four games and has completed 58 percent of his passes, each improvements over last season.
Kean athletics photo

Garrett, who admitted the approach was "definitely an experiment," said that, so far, it has paid dividends. Garrett said egos got in the way and, ultimately, derailed last season. With different lead voices each week, Garrett said his players can't be tempted to fall into the often inevitable false sense of grandeur.

"Sometimes that [title of captain is] more just an entitlement," Garrett said. "It doesn't mean that guy is the best leader in the weight room, it doesn't mean that guy is the best leader on the field, it just means that he might be your best football player."

Garrett's group of seniors have pulled their weight on the field this season. Senior linebacker Richard Esdaile spearheaded the Cougars' defense in the slugfest against TCNJ, tallying 10 tackles (five for a loss) and two sacks. Senior running back Chris DiMicco piled up 195 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against Western Connecticut. Bujari (eight tackles, two pass breakups, one blocked extra point) and senior lineman James-Edwards Boyd (nine tackles) helped keep Cortland at bay. And senior quarterback Tom D'Ambrisi, who is having the finest season of his career, was at his best against Wesley, completing 21 of 36 passes for 259 yards and three touchdowns.

D'Ambrisi has also benefited from the addition of quarterback coach Mike Teel, a former standout at Rutgers and 2009 sixth-round pick of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.

"It's easier to get coached by a quarterback at the quarterback position [rather] than a guy who maybe never played it, but knows a lot about it," Garrett said. "There's something to be said about the intricacies of that position."

Under Teel's tutelage, D'Ambrisi is on pace for his best season. D'Ambrisi currently ranks second in yards and third in touchdowns in the NJAC.

But even beyond D'Ambrisi's impressive performance, it's fair to argue that Kean's special teams is the biggest reason for the 4-0 start.

Through four games, the Cougars have four blocked kicks. Two punt blocks directly resulted in touchdowns, another blocked punt led to a touchdown on Kean's next play, and a blocked extra point kept a crucial point off the board for Cortland. Without the two blocked punts against Wesley, Kean almost certainly doesn't win that game. Kean also ranks first in the NJAC in kickoff return average and kickoff coverage average.

Garrett, who played and coached at Montclair State until taking over as Kean's defensive coordinator in 2003, makes sure to emphasize special teams, probably more than most coaches. The first meeting the team holds in training camp each season is devoted to special teams. From there, the Cougars spend at least 30 minutes at every practice focusing on special teams.

Whether all of these early successes foreshadow a special season remains to be seen. Garrett said the defense has left the bend-don't-break mentality behind and shown improvement over the last two weeks. Combine that with a favorable schedule over the next three weeks (vs. Buffalo State, at Brockport State, vs. Morrisville State) and it's not hard to picture the Cougars sitting at 7-0 overall.

"I'm one of those coaches, I don't really ever feel good ... ever," Garrett said with a laugh. "... We really haven't played our best football yet. We just haven't. For four quarters, we have not done that yet for a full 60 minutes."

Garrett, who preaches the simplistic pairing of effort and execution, will continue to lean on his 20 seniors. They've gotten the team this far.

"We don't win pretty," Garrett said. "We don't put style points up. We find a way to get it done. We find a way to persevere."

Who are you, St. John Fisher?
That's the question I've been asking repeatedly since the Cardinals' 17-3 win over defending Empire 8 champion Alfred this past Saturday. Who are you?

Are you the team that dominated Rochester in the Courage Bowl? Or are you the team laid an egg against Hobart just one week later? Or, just maybe, are you the team that forced six turnovers and held a potent Alfred offense to just three points this weekend? While the Cardinals' season certainly has been and up-and-down one, the peak so far is the win against Alfred.

St. John Fisher hadn't defeated Alfred since 2007 and, in the process, snapped Alfred's seven-game Empire 8 winning streak, which dated back to 2009. The Cardinals' defense tormented quarterback Tom Secky, who finished 12-of-27 for just 96 yards and four interceptions. Dave Vosburgh led the defensive charge with 13 tackles, a tackle for a loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. Collectively, the Cardinals broke up eight passes in one of the more dominant defensive performances of the season.

The last time Alfred was held without a touchdown in a game was a 24-0 loss to Ithaca in 2004. Now, the Saxons face an uphill, though hardly impossible, battle to bring home another Empire 8 title. At 3-1 overall and 1-1 in the conference, Alfred is one of four teams with a 1-1 Empire 8 mark. Salisbury (2-0) and St. John Fisher (1-1) lead the way. But with six more weeks left in the regular season, my best guess is that St. John Fisher will remain one of the top contenders in the Empire 8. Of course, that could change next week. Stay tuned.

Make room, St. Lawrence -- Hobart's back at the party
In back-to-back weeks, Hobart has defeated St. John Fisher by 36 points and defending Liberty League champion St. Lawrence by 23 points. That's a dominating two-week stretch, one that might foreshadow a run at a Liberty League championship for the Statesmen.

After their destruction of St. John Fisher two weeks -- which was as dominant as it was unexpected -- the Statesmen followed it up with a 23-0 blanking of St. Lawrence in their home opener. The Hobart defense, led by Tyre Coleman (2.5 sacks) and Devin Worthington (five tackles, one forced fumble, one pass breakup) held the Saints to just six first downs and 86 total yards of offense.

Offensively, the Statesmen were balanced and efficient, rushing for 188 yards on 46 carries and passing for 139 yards on 25 attempts. Quarterback Nick Strang threw one touchdown and ran for another as he continued his strong season. Strang ranks first in the conference with a 60 percent completion percentage this year, and his seven passing touchdowns rank third.

Hobart will get another Liberty League test this weekend when it faces a suddenly-hot Union team on the road. Union has won back-to-back conference games to take an early lead. The winner of Saturday's matchup will sit in first place in the conference.

Don't call it a Ly-comeback -- Lycoming routs Albright
For anyone ready to write off Lycoming, you might want to hold that thought. Just one week after a disappointing loss to Widener, the Warriors bounced back with a convincing 35-13 win over previously unbeaten Albright.

Lycoming's defense forced five turnovers -- two of which the Warriors scored on -- to shut down the Lions. Kabongo Bukasa returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown with only 10 seconds left in the first half to put Lycoming up 14-0. Ryan Fenningham returned a fumble eight yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.

Parker Showers (69 yards, one touchdown) and Craig Needhamme (52 yards, one touchdown) formed a potent one-two punch in the running game for Lycoming (3-1 overall, 1-1 MAC). The loss hurts Albright (4-1, 2-1), but the Lions remain in the thick of the MAC race. At this point, Delaware Valley (5-0, 2-0) looks like the odds-on favorite, but Lycoming showed Saturday it plans to remain in the discussion.

Rowan rolls past Western Connecticut
Rowan's loss to Cortland State two weeks ago left the Profs at a disappointing 1-2 overall. Any worries suddenly seem like a thing of the past.

Rowan bounced back with a lopsided 51-14 win over Western Connecticut, cementing its status as one of the premier teams in the NJAC. The Colonials haven't won a game since Nov. 7, 2009. This is the kind of game Rowan should have dominated. They did just that.

Louie Bianchini passed for 217 yards and three touchdowns and added another 83 yards rushing in a strong performance. Bianchini connected with Kevin DelleDonne on a seven-yard score late in the second quarter to put Rowan up 24-7.

Bianchini struck again in the third quarter, hooking up with Eddie Eisenhart on a 20-yard touchdown pass. Running back Steve Hevalow added 108 rushing yards and a pair of scores as Rowan flexed its offensive muscles. And when the Profs weren't scoring on offense, they were putting up points on defense.

Moe Ghotok returned one of Rowan's seven interceptions 79 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Rowan dominated the game in every facet possible, a sign that, despite some early-season hiccups, they should be in the mix for an NJAC title at the end of the season.

Top 25 glance: Delaware Valley rises, Alfred falls
Five of the six teams ranked in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll won. NJAC powers Kean (No. 10), Montclair State (No. 11) and Cortland State (No. 15) defeated TNCJ, Brockport State and Morrisville State, respectively.

Delaware Valley (No. 16) had the week's biggest jump, moving up from No. 21 a week ago. Salisbury (No. 22) also jumped up, moving up three spots from No. 25.

Alfred, the region's only ranked team to lose this past weekend, fell from No. 14 to No. 23.

Quick hits
Dan Ruffrage caught six passes for 75 yards and a touchdown and returned a kickoff 91 yards for another score to lead Ithaca past Hartwick 27-13. Mike Conti intercepted Hartwick quarterback Dan Brainard's pass and returned it 88 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the game to seal Ithaca's win. ... Mike Hermann passed for 218 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 110 yards and another two scores to lead RPI to a 28-24, come-from-behind win over Rochester. Hermann's 59-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter cut Rochester's lead to 24-21. Late in the fourth, Hermann connected with Austin Caswell on a 41-yard scoring strike to put the Engineers up for good. ... Josh Carter had the vaunted Springfield triple-option offense looking sharp in the Pride's 41-21 win over Merchant Marine. Carter piled up 185 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and added another score through the air, as Springfield cruised. Chase Dunn caught a pair of touchdowns for Merchant Marine. ... Chris Haupt set career highs with 346 passing yards and five touchdowns in Widener's record-setting 70-0 win over King's. Widener set a school record for most lopsided victory. Seven players scored touchdowns for the Pride. Chad Gravinese (four tackles, 1.5 sacks) spearheaded a defense that collected six sacks and forced two turnovers. ... Drew Connolly connected with Justin Gallo on touchdown passes of 33, 28 and 86 yards to help Union tally a 34-31 win over WPI. Connolly finished with 301 yards, 234 of which went to Gallo on his seven receptions. Ernie Mello scored three touchdowns -- two on rushes and one on a blocked punt recovery -- for WPI. ... Rich Pete rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown and Ismail Brooks tallied 77 yards and three touchdowns as Buffalo State (2-3 overall, 2-2 NJAC) defeated William Paterson 42-27. Pasquale Vacchio was a force defensively, piling up 11 tackles and two sacks, along with a 33-yard interception return for touchdown. ... Zach Tivald rushed for 172 yards and three touchdowns to power Wilkes past FDU-Florham 45-25. Tate Moore-Jacobs had a team-best 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception. Andrew Regan returned a third-quarter kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown as Wilkes improved to 2-2 overall and 2-1 in the MAC.

Looking ahead
St. John Fisher (3-1, 1-0 E8) will look for a second straight win when it travels to Ithaca (3-1, 1-1 E8) for a 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday. The Cardinals suffered a letdown against Hobart after their last impressive win. If that happens again, Ithaca could score its first win over St. John Fisher since 2005.

Two of the premier teams not only in the NJAC and East region, but the entire country will meet when No. 11 Montclair State (4-0, 3-0 NJAC) hosts No. 15 Cortland State (3-1, 3-1 NJAC) at 1 p.m. Saturday. This writer has had this matchup circled on his calendar for many months. The last three meetings have all been decided by single digits, including last season's 10-9 Cortland victory.

Two Liberty League teams have yet to lose a conference game this season. One of them will when Union (2-3, 2-0 LL) hosts Hobart (3-0, 1-0 LL) at 1 p.m. Saturday. Hobart won a high-scoring game last season and, after registering back-to-back wins against St. John Fisher and St. Lawrence, has emerged as one of the biggest surprise teams of the season.

Other games of note: Springfield (3-1, 1-1 E8) at Salisbury (4-0, 2-0 E8), noon, Saturday; Lebanon Valley (3-1, 1-1 MAC) at Albright (4-1, 2-1 MAC), 1 p.m., Saturday

Contact me
I'm always happy to hear from you, whether its questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com. You can also follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell), and be sure to get involved in the discussions on the Around the East thread on the message board.

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Andrew Lovell

Andrew Lovell is an associate news editor for ESPN.com and a former sports staff writer/editor for the New Britain Herald (Conn.). He has contributed freelance work to ESPN Rise and has been a regular contributor to D3football.com since 2007. Andrew has also written for a number of daily newspapers in New York, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ithaca Journal and Auburn Citizen. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 with B.A. in Sport Media and a minor in writing. A native of Hyde Park, N.Y., Andrew currently resides in New Britain. 

2006-10 columnist: Adam Samrov 

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