September 11, 2002: Sports

Tigers primed to pounce
Princeton expected to leap into Ivy League title fray

POSITIONAL ANALYSIS

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Tigers primed to pounce
Princeton expected to leap into Ivy League title fray

By Phillip R. Thune ’92

Photo: Cocaptain Chisom Opara ’03 and the rest of the Tigers’ passing attack will carry a big load this year. (Beverly Schaefer)

Like the plans for a sixth residential college, expectations for Princeton football are gaining momentum.

It’s been six years since the Tigers finished in the top three in the Ivies, including successive three-win seasons in coach Roger Hughes’s first two years on the job.

While that does not sound like a program on the rise, Hughes (6—13 career record) has had to rely on younger players in a league where experience is typically a prerequisite for success. Youthful mistakes were a factor in some of the Tigers’ 13 losses over the last two years, especially the six maddening defeats decided by a touchdown or less. In each of those games, the outcome was in doubt until the final few minutes.

“If you look at the league in the preseason, at the number of seniors who are starting, you can almost pick the league champion 95 percent of the time,” said Hughes, who is projected to have 10 senior starters and a league-leading total of 19 returning starters in all. “Are the close losses disheartening? Yes, but I knew it was going to be a building process. You always want things to happen yesterday, but the most satisfying thing has been to see the players develop in their work ethic.”

Princeton now appears to have veteran talent at all of the skill positions except fullback, while the rest of the league is depending on unproven commodities. For example, of the league’s eight projected starting quarterbacks, only Princeton’s David Splithoff ’04 and Harvard’s Neil Rose threw more than 37 passes in 2001. In a similar vein, the Tigers’ speedy tailback, senior Cameron Atkinson, is the league’s top returning rusher, and one of only two returning starters at that position.

As a result of the Tigers’ senior leadership, the media picked Princeton to finish second this year, behind defending champ Harvard. “It’s flattering,” says Hughes of the preseason ranking. “I think expectations have risen, and rightly so. With the experience we have, and the talent we have coming back, we should be an improved ball club. We shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time on basic schemes; we should be able to take the next step as far as offensive and defensive development.”

In 2002, players recruited by Hughes’s staff will represent three-quarters of the squad. Many of those players helped the Tigers end 2001 on a high note, blowing out Yale and Dartmouth by a combined score of 69—28. In those two games, Princeton combined an explosive passing game and a punishing ground attack with a defense led by LB Zak Keasey ’04 (20 tackles) and Kevin Kongslie ’03 (three interceptions). The Tigers did not turn the ball over, while causing eight interceptions and a fumble.

On offense, Splithoff and Atkinson had big games, as did wide receivers Chisom Opara ’03 and B. J. Szymanski ’05. Szymanski was a freshman last year, but after averaging more than 26 yards per catch, he should keep defenses from focusing too much on cocaptain Opara, who already ranks sixth in school history in career receptions.

The team’s significant losses to graduation, All-Ivy first-teamers LB Chris Roser-Jones ’02 and placekicker/punter Taylor Northrop ’02, also played big parts in those victories. Without Northrop, who passed Alex Sierk ’99 as the Tigers’ all-time leader in field goals and averaged 39 yards per punt in 2001, the Tigers have a huge hole in the kicking game, which may be the team’s only weak spot.

In summary, Princeton has the league’s top returning tailback and its second best quarterback, a deep receiving corps, and an experienced offensive line. The Tigers also boast a solid defensive front seven and the best secondary in the Ivies. While the kicking game is a question mark, that is not enough to dampen hopes that Princeton will compete for its first Ivy title since 1995.

The media picked Brown and Penn to challenge Harvard and Princeton at the top of the standings, with Dartmouth, Yale, Cornell, and Columbia picked to finish in the bottom half of the league.

The Tigers open the season September 21 on the road against Lehigh, the four-time defending Patriot League champs. But their schedule then eases up with Lafayette visiting Princeton for the Tigers’ home opener, followed by a visit to New York City to face lowly Columbia. The next weekend, however, Colgate travels to Princeton Stadium. Lehigh and Colgate combined to trounce Princeton 69—20 last season, and the Tigers will be underdogs in those games again this year.

“Our biggest concern is how we start the season,” said Hughes. “We start with Lehigh, which preseason is ranked number one in the country (in Division I-AA), and they will have played two games already. Then we play Lafayette, go to Columbia, and face Colgate. Part of this league has been getting confidence early and just letting it carry through because there is so much parity in the league. So my hope is that we can somehow play well the first four games, get some confidence, and then get to the meat of our league schedule hitting on all cylinders.”

The Tigers’ week-five matchup with Brown could be the key to the season. Expect the Tigers to enter the Brown game with a record of 2—2, and if Princeton can overcome the Bruins they will have great momentum for Harvard in week six. With a win against the Crimson, only a disaster would derail a championship season. If the Tigers stumble against Brown, winning a title becomes a longshot, and it could be a while until Princeton has the depth, experience, and edge over the rest of the league to challenge for its ninth Ivy crown.

Phillip R. Thune ’92 is COO/CFO of the Internet marketing company FindWhat.com in Ft. Myers, Florida.

 

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POSITIONAL ANALYSIS

Photos by Beverly Schaefer

Quarterback: Splithoff’s passes are like eBay CEO Meg Whitman ’77’s pockets . . . very deep. He has thrown for 12 career TDs — and half have gone at least 50 yards. Splithoff (pictured) threw for 1,680 yards last season, completing over 59 percent of his passes, with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. A threat to run at any time, he was the team’s second-leading rusher with 326 yards. Hughes says that Matt Verbit ’05, the son of Princeton defensive coordinator Steve Verbit, had a great spring season, but he makes it clear, “There is no quarterback controversy.”

Running Backs: Atkinson (pictured), a track star, holds the Princeton record in the 60-yard dash (6.87). He used that speed to average 5.8 yards per carry last year, the best since Keith Elias ’94 in 1993. Princeton also can rely on Jon Veach ’05, who ran for 108 yards against Dartmouth when Atkinson (660 yards, 9 TDs) was hurt on the second-half kickoff. Joel Mancl ’05 is favored to start at fullback.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The Tigers have terrific depth at wideout, including starters Opara (36 receptions, 581 yards, 3 TDs) and Szymanski (8, 213, 2), who will be backed by Blair Morrison ’04 (15, 175, 1) and Nate Lindell ’03 (18, 202, 0). Senior Mike Chiusano, a 6' 5" 220-pounder with soft hands (14, 91, 2), returns as the starting tight end.

Offensive Line: Princeton has four returning starters on the offensive line for the first time in years, with the opening-day lineup consisting of four seniors and a junior. That experience will allow Hughes, who likes big plays and trick plays, to be more creative offensively.

Defensive Line: When end Joe Weiss ’04 (pictured) broke his leg in Princeton’s third game last year, the repercussions were felt by the entire defense. Classmate Tim Kirby had to face double-teams on his end of the line, hobbling the pass rush and leaving the secondary exposed against a lineup of talented opposing QBs. Weiss is now healthy, and most of those quarterbacks have graduated. That should make a big difference.

Linebackers: Keasey and cocaptain Drew Babinecz ’03 are solid inside linebackers, while junior Steven Jameson has the unenviable task of trying to replace Roser-Jones ’02 on the outside.

Defensive Backs: Most of Princeton’s inexperienced rival quarterbacks will be turning their heads like a freshman during Orientation Week, which could equate to a huge year for the Tiger secondary. All four defensive backs will be starting for the third consecutive season: safeties Brandon Mueller ’04 and Kongslie (pictured), a first team All-Ivy selection in 2001, plus corners Paul Simbi ’03 and Blake Perry ’04.

Special Teams: Northrop handled both punting and kicking for the last three years, and Hughes may turn to Joe Nardello ’05 to do the same. But if Nardello sticks to punting, freshmen Eliot Bishop and Derek Javarone will compete for the placekicker role. Atkinson and Andy Bryant ’03 return kickoffs, and Bryant is one of the league’s best punt returners.

Freshmen: There are not many holes to fill, but Bishop and Javarone will get a shot at placekicker, Ben Brielmaier will help on the defensive line, and Abi Fadeyi and Justin Stull could see time at outside linebacker.

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GAME BY GAME

All games to be broadcast on WBUD AM 1260

Photo: Kak Keasey '04 sets up agaist Yale for one of his team-leading 71 tackles. (Beverly Schaefer)

at Lehigh (9 offensive starters returning, 9 defensive starters returning): Lehigh (11—1) has won 23 straight regular season games, the longest streak in Division I football, and it is picked to ride the tiny shoulders of 5' 4" tailback Jermaine Pugh to its fifth straight Patriot League title. Pugh finds holes behind an offensive line with an average weight of more than 300 pounds. The defense is scary, and will test whether Splithoff, Atkinson, Opara, and company are ready for an Ivy title run.

Lafayette (9 offensive, 3 defensive): Like Princeton, Lafayette (2—8) returns its leading passer, rusher, and receiver from 2001. Nonetheless, the Leopards are picked to finish near the bottom of the Patriot League. A Tiger victory is expected, but looking past Lafayette could result in an upset similar to the 24—17 defeat Princeton suffered in 2000 in Hughes’s first game as head coach.

at Columbia (5 offensive, 5 defensive): Columbia (3—7, 3—4 Ivy) graduated its most talented players from a mostly talentless team. The Lions usually put up a fight against Princeton on their home turf, but if this game isn’t a cakewalk, the Tigers may not be as good as they look on paper.

Colgate (7 offensive, 10 defensive): QB Tom McCune is the second best quarterback Princeton will face, with a 12—3 career record and more than 3,000 yards passing. The Raiders (7—3) handed Princeton its worst losses of the last two seasons, 34—6 in 2000 and 35—10 in 2001.

Brown (3 offensive, 8 defensive): During coach Phil Estes’s four-year tenure, Brown (6—3, 5—2 Ivy) has been the most prolific and most successful team in the league, with 1,283 points (33 per game) and 29 wins. WR Chas Gessner, who is 6' 5" and led the nation in receiving yards in 2001, returns along with the league’s second leading rusher, Joe Rackley. Brown lost its QB, but has a transfer from the University of Arizona who will benefit from one of the league’s top offensive lines. Brown also has its best defense in years, which makes this must-win game an even bigger challenge.

Harvard (6 offensive; 5 defensive): As if Gessner weren’t tough enough, the following week the Tiger secondary faces 2001 Ivy League Player of the Year WR Carl Morris. All-Ivy quarterback Neil Rose is back as well for Harvard (9—0, 7—0 Ivy), although the defense lost six all-league selections. If Princeton can beat Columbia and Brown, then this game should determine the Ivy title, and it should be fun to watch.

at Cornell (5 offensive; 9 defensive): At the Ivy coaches’ press conference, Cornell’s Tim Pendergast joked that he may have to use respective GPAs to select among his three candidates for starting quarterback. Cornell (2—7, 2—5 Ivy) also has issues at tailback and kicker. The defense is more settled, but it still gave up 432 yards per game last season.

Pennsylvania (6 offensive; 4 defensive): The Tigers will be favored against Penn (8—1, 6—1 Ivy) for the first time in years. The Quakers’ all-time leading passer and rusher have graduated, and this season will be a rebuilding year.

at Yale (6 offensive; 9 defensive): Everything went right for Princeton in last year’s Yale and Dartmouth games, and the Tigers have to hope the momentum continues this season. The Elis’ (3—6, 1—6 Ivy) biggest hole is at quarterback, but the team is not particularly strong at any position.

Dartmouth (5 offensive; 9 defensive): Hughes is 1—1 against Dartmouth (1—8, 1—6 Ivy), where he was the offensive coordinator for eight years under head coach John Lyons. Lyons and Hughes won two Ivy titles together, the first in 1992 with Jay Fiedler, now the starting QB for the Miami Dolphins.

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Sports Shorts

Photo: Jessica Collins ’02 (Princeton athletic communications)

While summer is a time to rest up and work on that tan for some, several Princeton Tigers spent their break on the move or making news. Men’s lacrosse coach Bill Tierney received a call from the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame in Baltimore, where he will be inducted as a member of the class of 2002 on October 12. During his career, Tierney has guided six NCAA championship squads and one world championship U.S. team in 1998, and helped turn Princeton into one of the country’s elite lacrosse programs. “It just means you’re getting old,” joked Tierney, who has a 204—60 career coaching record (170—53 at Princeton with 10 Ivy League titles). “I have so many people to share this with, especially my wife and family. I’m humbled by it. We’ve had great things happen here. I’m blessed. I’ve had the opportunity to have two sons go through here and play for me. We graduated every kid that came into the program. All of my recruits have won at least one national title. I hope it all continues.” But Tierney wasn’t the only one making noise for the men’s lax team. Five current and former Tigers helped the U.S. men’s lacrosse team to victory in July at the 2002 World Championships in Australia. Princeton’s Kevin Lowe ’94, Trevor Tierney ’01, Ryan Mollett ’01, Matt Striebel ’01, and Ryan Boyle ’04 all starred on a team that had not been favored to beat more experienced squads from Canada and Australia. Women's soccer made a buzz recently as coach Julie Shackford’s current freshman class was ranked 16th in SoccerBuzz Magazine. The Tigers ranked 24th a year ago, when four freshmen started for the 14—3—2 Ivy League champions. Also, Jessica Collins ’02, who played for the Tigers the last four years and shared the 2002 Art Lane Award for outstanding service to sport and society by an undergraduate student athlete, has joined the team’s coaching staff. Men’s basketball doings can be put in the “We hardly knew ye” file. Dominick Martin, who started 21 games at center for the Tigers last year as a freshman, has transferred to Yale. Tom McLaughlin, another member of the ballyhooed freshman class who played sparingly last season, is also reportedly in the process of transferring. Women’s hockey coach Jeff Kampersall ’92 and three of his players were chosen to take part in the 2002 USA Hockey Women’s Festival last month in Lake Placid, New York. Gretchen Anderson ’04 was selected to the USA Hockey under-22 select team. Andrea Kilbourne ’03, who skated for the U.S. in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and Becky Stewart ’05 were named to festival teams. Baseball lost an arm this summer. Scott Hindman ’03, a lefthanded pitcher who was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in the 22nd round of the Major League Baseball draft, signed a contract with the team on July 25. Contract terms were undisclosed, but Hindman will return to Princeton to graduate with his class in June. NCAA rules will not allow him to pitch for the Tigers.

Heavyweight crew captain John Cranston ’03 helped the U.S. under-23 squad to a gold medal at the 2002 World Regatta in July. Cranston’s coach, Curtis Jordan, guided the U.S. men’s squad, which won four medals. Women’s open crew’s Lia Pernell ’03 teamed up with Frederique Garnier to take the bronze in women's double sculls.

Princeton finished 21st in the final 2001-02 Sears Directors’ Cup rankings on the strength of several national tournament appearances and a national championship in women’s lacrosse. The standings rate the country’s top athletic departments. Princeton is the only non-scholarship school ever to crack the Sears Cup’s Top 25, accomplishing the feat in 1996, 1998, and 2001. The Tigers’ success also put the Ivy League among the elite college sports conferences this year, helping the Ancient Eight to the number six spot in the league rankings. The top five conferences were the Pac-10, Big 10, SEC, ACC, and the Big XII. The Ivy League finished ahead of the Big East.

 
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