September 15, 2004: Sports
Despite a disappointing record, Princeton football developed a few success stories last year. Justin Stull ’06 emerged as a dominant linebacker, leading the Ivy League in tackles, and quarterback Matt Verbit ’05 proved to be a consistent offensive threat, averaging 250 passing yards per game. But near-misses overshadowed those improvements: The Tigers dropped three games on the final play (two in overtime) and gave up a halftime lead in their year-ending defeat at Dartmouth to finish 2—8. “In a season like we had last year, there are a lot of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys,’” says coach Roger Hughes. “We’ve got to eliminate those.”
To guard against fourth-quarter letdowns this year, Hughes and his staff changed the way they structure practice. Conditioning work was moved to the beginning to give players an understanding of what it takes to compete while physically and mentally fatigued. Hughes also made turnovers a focus in preseason workouts, hoping to reverse Princeton’s dismal turnover margin (minus 11), which ranked seventh in the Ivy last year.
The new approach could help to revive the Tigers, but changes in the team’s summer routine may have an even greater impact. More than 50 players stayed on campus for voluntary workouts, the largest contingent during Hughes’ tenure. “There is a hunger here that I have not seen,” Hughes says.
Princeton’s greatest strength is its defense, particularly linebackers Stull (All-Ivy in 2003), and Zak Keasey ’05 (All-Ivy in 2002), who was academically ineligible last year. Stull, a middle linebacker in Keasey’s absence, will move to outside linebacker this year. “I don’t think it’s going to be a tough adjustment,” Hughes says. “He has very good football instincts, and he works very hard on learning his position.” The defensive secondary welcomes back key contributors Brandon Mueller ’05 and Jay McCareins ’06, who were also ineligible last year. But the defensive front will miss Joe Weiss ’04 and Tim Kirby ’04, who anchored the line for the last two years. At least six players will be competing to fill their shoes.
On offense, tailbacks Jon Veach ’05 and Branden Benson ’05 will share the rushing load, but Verbit will shoulder much of the responsibility. His combined passing and rushing output totaled 2,699 yards last season, third best in Princeton history. “Clearly, he’s got some talent throwing the football, and he’s more athletic than I think people give him credit for,” Hughes says. “As a leader, he really emerged this spring, and the guys rallied around him on the offensive side.”
Princeton’s most significant unknown is at wide receiver, where Blair Morrison ’04 graduated and B.J. Szymanski ’05 gave up his final year to sign with baseball’s Cincinnati Reds. Eric Walz ’07, Clinton Wu ’05, and Derek Davis ’06 will look to be Verbit’s primary targets, along with tight end Jon Dekker ’06. Veach, Benson, and reserve back Greg Fields ’06 also will factor into the passing game.
Ranked sixth in the preseason Ivy media poll, Princeton will have to earn respect in a crop of Ivy teams that Hughes calls the strongest he has seen. Yale returns quarterback Alvin Cowan, who finished third in the nation in passing last year, Penn has its strongest defense in recent memory, and Harvard boasts an experienced and explosive offense. The Tigers’ schedule provides an opportunity for a strong start – of their first three opponents, only San Diego had a winning season in 2003 – but Hughes, who has yet to win an opener at Princeton, is not looking past the Sept. 18 Lafayette game.
Four decades have passed since coach Dick Colman and captain Cosmo Iacavazzi ’65 drove the famed single-wing offense to nine straight victories for Princeton football’s last undefeated season. But the key to that championship run in 1964, Iacavazzi recalls, is something Princeton teams in all sports will be searching for this fall: “this elusive thing called chemistry.”
The 1964 team developed strong bonds in August, training off campus at Blairstown. “It was remote, it was intimate, and when you first came in it could be intimidating,” says Stas Maliszewski ’66, an All-American guard. “It was a special experience.” As the players learned to rely on each other, they put confidence in Colman, who took an innovative approach to analyzing football. His assistants graded each play and coded the information on IBM punch cards, running the data through a computer to determine patterns of success.
On the field, trust and confidence combined for winning results. In the biggest game of the year against undefeated Yale, left tackle Ernie Pascarella ’65 called the game’s most important play. Princeton held a one-touchdown lead in the third quarter when Pascarella noticed the defense pinching in on the center of the line. He suggested a play to exploit the hole, and quarterback Roy Pizzarello ’65 agreed, calling for a direct snap to Iacavazzi, an All-American fullback. Iacavazzi sprinted 39 yards for a touchdown and later scored again on the same play. Princeton won convincingly, 35–14.
The ’64 season marked Princeton’s 10th undefeated year since 1900 and its first since 1951. “With the standard that was set before us, we thought 13 years was a long time between undefeated teams,” Iacavazzi says. “Now that it’s 40 years, it heightens the fact that it’s quite an achievement. And we’re rooting for the next team to do it.”
First-round choices in July’s Major League Baseball draft included the usual suspects: a handful of high school phenoms mixed in with a parade of collegiate stars from powerhouse programs like Florida State, Texas, and Rice. Princeton was not far behind. In the second round, the Cincinnati Reds chose centerfielder B.J. Szymanski ’05 as the 48th pick, and four other Tigers followed in the next 18 rounds, making the 2004 draft class the largest in school history. The news traveled quickly in the clubhouse of the Potomac Cannons, where pitcher Thomas Pauly ’04, a second-round pick in the 2003 draft, made sure his teammates knew about each prospect. “The whole college season, Baseball America [magazine] was big on B.J., so of course I was bragging about him,” Pauly says. “By the time the draft came, my team was sick of hearing about Princeton baseball players.”
Pauly’s teammates, and the rest of the baseball world, may be hearing more about Princeton alumni in the coming seasons. Four of this year’s draftees signed professional contracts, bringing the Tigers’ total of active professionals to nine. And on Aug. 24, Chris Young ’02 pitched his first major-league game for the Texas Rangers, becoming Princeton’s first big leaguer since Bob Tufts ’77 pitched for the Kansas City Royals in 1983.
Much of the credit for Princeton’s trove of baseball talent belongs to coach Scott Bradley, a former major-league catcher whose teams have won four of the last five Ivy League titles. In addition to recruiting strong prospects, Bradley provides valuable instruction and guidance, even after his players leave campus. “He always offers advice, where needed, and there are plenty of times when it’s needed,” says Szymanski, the highest draft choice in Princeton history. So far, Szymanski is living up to expectations with the Billings (Mont.) Mustangs. He hit a home run in his third professional at-bat and through Aug. 25 was batting .259 in 22 games played.
Young, one of Princeton’s experienced farmhands, showed major-league potential
this season, splitting time between Frisco, Texas (AA), and Oklahoma City (AAA) before being promoted to the majors. During his climb up the minor-league ladder, Young had been traded twice, most recently to Texas on the final day of spring training in April. Despite the uncertainty of playing in a new organization, he had one of his most productive years. “You just try to do well where you are,” Young says, “because there are so many extenuating circumstances that you can’t control.” Unfortunate circumstances worked to Young’s advantage in July. A line drive cracked the elbow of Rangers starting pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez, opening up a spot on the major-league roster and in turn clearing space for a pitcher in AAA. Young embraced the opportunity in AAA, posting a 1.48 earned-run average and a 3–0 record in his first five starts. A month later, he joined the Rangers as they chased the American League West pennant.
Elsewhere on the mound, Pauly had a strong year as both a starter and relief pitcher, improving his change-up and leading his team in strikeouts with 122 (an average of 10.2 per nine innings). Pauly, who will complete his studies in chemical engineering this fall, says that being a Princetonian provides his teammates with material for some good-natured ribbing, but a teammate from Stanford shares the heat. “In the locker room,” he says, “it’s pretty much open season on everybody.”
At the Olympics in Athens, three Princeton crew alumni earned medals in their events Aug. 21—22. CHRIS AHRENS ’98 captured gold with the U.S. men’s eight, who won the event for the first time in 40 years. LIANNE BENNION NELSON ’95 won silver with the U.S. women’s eight, and Canadian TOM HERSCHMILLER ’01 took silver in the men’s four, reaching the finish line 0.08 seconds behind Great Britain.
Fencer SOREN THOMPSON ’05 upset No. 2 seed Alfredo Rota of Italy Aug. 17 and became the United States’ first quarter-finalist in the men’s epee since 1956.
The National Football Foundation (NFF) named BOB CASCIOLA ’58 this year’s recipient of its Distinguished American Award. Casciola, the NFF’s president for the last nine years, was an All-Ivy tackle in 1957 and the Tigers’ head coach from 1973—77. He left coaching in 1978 to pursue a banking career and later became the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. Since joining the NFF as its executive director in 1991, Casciola has increased the organization’s membership and fostered the growth of the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind. The Distinguished American Award will be presented at the NFF’s annual awards dinner December 7.
WOMEN’S SOCCER standout Esmeralda Negron ’05 made her international debut for the U.S. Under-21 National Team in the final game of the Nordic Cup July 29. The United States beat Sweden 3—0 to win the tournament.
In MEN’S HEAVYWEIGHT CREW, Steve Coppola ’06 helped the U.S. team win a bronze medal in the men’s four with coxswain at the World Rowing Championships in Banyoles, Spain, on Aug. 1. Coppola was one of six Tigers participating in the competition.
WOMEN’S LIGHTWEIGHT CREW coach Heather Smith resigned July 29 because of family commitments. In seven years at Princeton, Smith’s rowers claimed five consecutive national championships, from 1999—2003, and posted a 26—4 record.