November 21, 2001: Sports

Coming up short
Tigers fall to Cornell, Penn

Rock steady on the court
Ahmed El Nokali 02 leads the Tigers in their defense of the Ivy championship

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Coming up short
Tigers fall to Cornell, Penn

By Phillip R. Thune ’92

Photo: Taylor Northrup ’02’s kicking has been one of the few bright spots for the Tigers. (Beverly Schaefer)

Taylor Northrup ’02 stood at midfield with his hands on his hips, staring in disbelief at the goalpost. The rest of his teammates had already jogged off the field, but Northrup stayed put, unable to avert his gaze. His 57-yard field goal attempt had just hit the crossbar and bounced back onto the field, one foot too short.

That one image – and the drive that led to what would have been the longest field goal in Ivy League history – sums up Princeton’s 2001 season and most of the 17-game tenure of Coach Roger Hughes.

The field goal attempt, which came with seven minutes left in the Cornell game on October 27 in Princeton Stadium, would have tied the score at 10—10. Instead, Princeton (1—6, 1—4 Ivy) lost 10—7 to the Big Red, who entered the game without a win. The following week in Philadelphia, Penn overpowered Princeton in the fourth quarter, winning 21—10 to remain unbeaten.

In both games, the Tigers displayed flashes of the talent they clearly possess, but made fatal mistakes in crucial situations. It is a formula that gives both the formidable and laughable among Princeton’s opponents more comeback opportunities than Michael Jordan.

For example, while Northrup’s attempt was impressive, he should have been 20 yards closer (he is a perfect 8-for-8 this season inside 40 yards). Princeton had marched 50 yards to the Cornell 20-yard line, but two penalties and a sack pushed Princeton back, just out of Northrup’s reach.

“He’s hit 65-yarders in practice,” said Hughes, who is now 4—13 as Princeton head coach. “And I thought with the wind there would be no problem. We hurt ourselves; we were in great field goal range. We got a motion penalty, and then we got a holding penalty and a little bit of a sack. Taylor did everything he could to overcome our mistakes, but it was just a little bit short.”

“I did hit it clean, I guess I just didn’t crush it,” said Northrup, who connected on his 36th career field goal at Penn, tying him with Alex Sierk ’99 for the Princeton career record. “You stand there, you watch the ball go toward the uprights — I never could have imagined that it could hit the crossbar. I thought it was good.”

Northrup has had several games rest on his foot. At Harvard the week before, Northrup just missed a 49-yard, game-winning attempt at the buzzer. A year ago against Cornell, he slipped and failed to hit an extra point that would have tied the game with two seconds left. And against Penn, Northrup missed a 51-yard attempt that would have given the Tigers a 13—7 lead early in the third quarter.

Nonetheless, Northrup is narrowly missing from distances that others can only dream about. His three field goals of more than 40 yards this year match the combined total of the rest of the league’s kickers. And scouts from several NFL teams have attended Princeton games this fall solely to watch Northrup, who is also the team’s punter.

After growing up as a soccer star, Northrup tried football in his junior year of high school. By his senior year, he was All-State in Florida as both a kicker and punter. “The top schools looking at me were Penn State and Tennessee,” recalls Northrup, an anthropology major who is willing to play anywhere to keep kicking professionally. “But even though I was a good recruit, I was never the top on anybody’s list because I was a newcomer. The name they gave me was the ‘sleeper kicker,’ because no one knew about me because I started playing football so late.”

The Cornell game was sleep-inducing. The teams combined for 12 punts, with the only impressive play coming at the end of the first half. Sophomore quarterback David Splithoff engineered a 98-yard touchdown drive, running for 24 yards and connecting on all three of his passes, including an 8-yarder to tight end Mike Chiusano ’03 in the back of the end zone.

The Big Red answered immediately with a 78-yard touchdown drive of their own. A 40-yard field goal by Cornell early in the fourth quarter capped the scoring.

At Franklin Field, Princeton surprised Penn by running a no-huddle, spread offense. The Tigers drove for a field goal on their opening possession, and led 10—7 at the half. Princeton had a great opportunity to extend the lead to 10 points late in the third quarter, but failed to score on a fourth-down play from Penn’s two-yard line.

The Quakers’ offense was too much for Princeton in the final quarter, scoring touchdowns on two back-breaking drives, and putting the game out of reach for the Tigers, even Northrup.

 

Phillip Thune ’92 is COO of FindWhat.com.

 

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Rock steady on the court
Ahmed El Nokali ’02 leads the Tigers in their defense of the Ivy championship

By Jeremy Weissman ’02

Photo: Point guard Ahmed El Nokali ’02 will direct the Tigers. (Beverly Schaefer)

In the midst of all the changes that have rocked Princeton basketball over the past few years, one player has remained steady: Ahmed El Nokali ’02. And this year, the Tigers are El Nokali’s team. As the defending Ivy League champions prepare for their season — which opened November 15 at the Black Coaches’ Association Classic against California, St. Joseph’s, and Eastern Washington — they will look for leadership to the quiet point guard from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, their newly anointed captain.

“On the court, my role has definitely grown,” El Nokali says. “With each passing year, more is expected of you.”

“You’ve seen with Ahmed just a steady progression,” agrees head coach John Thompson III ’88. “He’s gone from a skinny, nervous freshman to someone who was difficult to play without last year.” So difficult, in fact, that El Nokali barely left the court during Ivy League play last year, averaging 38.5 (out of 40) minutes per game.

El Nokali could always handle the ball. “He walked in the door as an outstanding dribbler, someone who understood that possession of the ball is precious,” Thompson says. El Nokali is also remarkable for his consistency, rarely picking up cheap fouls on defense and committing few turnovers on offense given that he is the Tigers’ primary ballhandler. Everything about his game suggests control, even his distinctive upright dribbling posture.

He’s played that way since freshman year, consistent, balanced, the posture unchanging. But he’ll tell you that he sees the game differently now. “My outlook on the game has really matured,” he says.

Consider last season as a case in point. The Tigers were coming off a famously tough summer during which their coach, star center, and several other players departed, and most analysts expected the team to struggle. “People wrote us off,” El Nokali says. “We believed, though, that we still had the pieces to win a title.” The Tigers proved that they did, playing fundamental basketball that reminded some observers of the way the teams of the late 1980s — with guard Thompson — played under Coach Pete Carril.

Thompson and the Tigers will face a different kind of scrutiny and a different set of challenges this year as defending Ivy champions. “It’s going to be a tough league,” Thompson says. Because unlike most conferences, the Ivy League does not determine its champion through a postseason tournament, the stakes in regular-season play are much higher, Thompson notes. “Every game is a playoff game,” he says. “Every slip-up can affect you in the big picture.”

When Ivy play begins in mid-January, Thompson expects the Tigers’ toughest challenges to come from Columbia, which is led by seven seniors, Brown, which tied for second last year and returns its leading scorers, and, as always, from Penn.

El Nokali will lead the Tigers’ charge, with help from fellow senior and cocaptain Mike Bechtold ’02, a 6'6" forward. Besides El Nokali, the Tigers return three starters in Kyle Wente ’03 and Ed Persia ’04, both guards, and Andre Logan ’04, a 6'7" forward. Konrad Wysocki ’04 impressed Thompson with his improvement over the summer and, at 6'8", may replace last year’s surprise star, Nate Walton ’01, in the high-post center spot. Former starters Ray Robins ’03 and Chris Krug ’04 also return to the team this year after time off from school.

Joining them will be a group of freshmen that Hoop Scoop, a national basketball recruiting publication, called “not only by far and away the best recruiting class in the league, but also a recruiting class that will be ranked in the top 40—50 nationally.” The five recruits include two potential centers, Mike Stephens ’05 from Napa, California, and Dominic Martin ’05 from Asheville, North Carolina, both of whom stand 6'10".

Thompson promises a fluid lineup that may change depending on opponent and on the development of the freshmen, about whom Thompson maintains a coach’s equanimity. “We have a freshman class that has received a little bit of attention, but they’re still freshmen. They have no idea how hard it is to compete at this level,” he says. “One day this group will be very good, but they’re not there yet.”

Princeton begins its season with a characteristically masochistic nonconference schedule, including games against Top-25 heavies California, Maryland, and Kansas. Thompson acknowledges that many of those games were scheduled a few years ago, when Princeton figured on having a 6'10" senior center who might be cocaptain now, had things had gone a little differently.

Chris Young ’02 surrendered his Ivy League eligibility last summer when he signed a professional baseball contract, but not before his two stellar seasons at center earned him a spot on Princeton’s all-decade team and a lasting place in the memory of the Princeton program. Young is still on campus finishing his degree, conspicuously so at 6'10", and that only makes the possibility of what might have been more tantalizing.

“You still have probably the best player in the league on your campus, and you see him every day,” Thompson said. “To ask, ‘Do we miss him?’ – that’s an understatement.”

El Nokali is not about to forget, either. He and Young have been roommates at Princeton and remain best friends. “Even we talk a lot about what could have been if he had remained a part of this team,” El Nokali says. “He’s shown nothing but support for the team and the program.”

And so El Nokali begins his final season as Princeton’s sole leader, the fixed point around which the program has revolved. For all the changes that have taken place, there is nevertheless a kind of balance to be found in El Nokali’s career: two seasons alongside his best friend, and two seasons without him; two seasons under Carmody, and two under Thompson. But the most crucial balance is one El Nokali will fight hard to achieve: In his first two years the Tigers were league runner-up. He hopes to leave the last two a champion.

 

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