By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA — Winning one league championship is hard. Winning two, exceptional.
But winning three in a row? That's the very large task of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, who were virtually a unanimous pick to win the Patriot League in 2012.
"Setting out to win another Patriot League Championship is always a tough battle, because there are five other teams looking to do the same thing," Ryan Spadola said recently. "What’s great about this team is that no one is complacent. Every player is looking to improve and set higher goals each coming season.
"People may say that we have a bull’s eye on our back, but we ignore that. Everyone in the program is real hungry and focused on getting our third straight championship. We don’t get hunted, instead we hunt."
The last two years, Patriot League opponents have been trying to bag a Mountain Hawk with their buckshot, but have been unsuccessful.
For the last two years, Lehigh has gone undefeated in league play, and for good measure also swept Fordham, which is technically ineligible for the league title but are certainly aware of its relative standing in the league.
Making it three straight years is a huge challenge in any league, but Lehigh DT Sajjad Chagani seems to be focused on focusing on the relentless effort it will take to win another league championship.
"We're the only class [at Lehigh] that understands how it feels to 4-7 football team," he said, "and to lose six games by a touchdown or less. We want to emphasize that it's the littlest details that makes the difference between No. 5 in the nation, or not being in the playoffs."
Georgetown, who was 7-4 last season, returns almost all of their team and were one win away from heading to the playoffs themselves, might be telling themselves the same thing.
"Lehigh was a great team last year," Hoya QB Isaiah Kempf said. "Going into that game last year we had full confidence that we could win, and we were going to win. That obviously didn't happen, but having that Patriot League Championship game experience going forward will certainly help."
"We're right there with everyone in the league," Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore said, whose Crusaders were picked second in the preseason poll. "You just need to find a way to do things just a little bit better, work just a little bit harder, and call the right play just one more time. The difference between great and good programs is your ability to win those close, important games late in the season to capture the title."
On paper, Lehigh would seem to be bag-able, losing an All-American quarterback and the heart and soul of the defense last season.
And Bucknell and Georgetown return the most experience in the league, too, with Isaiah Kempf and Brandon Wesley, respectively, back for their third straight years of leading their offenses.
Yet Holy Cross, with their pass-happy team, are certainly potential wildcards to compete - and with wily coaches like Colgate's Dick Biddle and Lafayette's Frank Tavani, it would be very unwise to sleep on either team.
It makes for an interesting season - where a team picked in the lower half could, with a key play here or there, be competing for the championship in November.
Will Lehigh be the hunters, or the hunted?
Five Players To Watch in 2012
1. WR Ryan Spadola, Lehigh: Will he be able to sustain his level of production now that it's no longer QB Chris Lum tossing him the ball — and WR Jake Drwal is no longer garnering attention on the opposite side?.
2. CB Jeremy Moore, Georgetown: This versatile defensive back has the speed to be both a solid blitzer from the outside and a great Patriot League cover man. He'll have a lot of chances to show off his talents against pass-happy Lehigh and Holy Cross.
3. QB Brandon Wesley, Bucknell: Is this a breakout year for the third-year starter at QB? That depends on whether the Plano, Texas native more resembles the player that went 11-for-19 passing with 3 TDs against Georgetown, and less resembles the guy that went 7-for-27 with 0 TDs against Holy Cross.
4. SS Tom Mannix, Holy Cross: A true enforcer at safety, he'll need to be a leader on a defense that has lost a lot of experience at linebacker. If he and the defense become a unit to be feared around the league, watch out.
5. CB Darius Safford, Lafayette: Safford, the speedy corner from Georgia, should be able to build on a great 2011, with four interceptions and eight passes defensed. His ability to be a lockdown corner will be critical if Lafayette can get back on top this year.
My Sleeper Player to Watch: RB Zach Barket, Lehigh. With all the emphasis on the Lehigh passing game, few stop to think about the high school coal region star that quietly put up 1,335 all-purpose yards and 9 TDs before he broke his leg in the second to last game in 2011. Now completely healthy, he could be a surprise player to lead the Patriot League in rushing and have a breakout of a year.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Lehigh: Can the Mountain Hawks do it again without All-American Chris Lum at QB? With the number of weapons Lehigh has on offense, signs point to yes.
2. Georgetown: A whole lot of experience returns, but will the loss of offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude hurt?
3. Holy Cross: The Crusaders get Lehigh in Worcester in early Novermber, but will they find a quarterback by then that can vault them above Georgetown and Lehigh?
4. Bucknell: Joe Susan's squad surprised everyone by going 6-5 last year, and might suprise a lot more people when they are a factor in the title chase this year.
5. Colgate: The word is that Dick Biddle's squad is in "rebuilding" mode with the graduation of RB Nate Eachus. The Raiders' backs will still get the yards, butthe real question is can their defense get back to the world-beating form of the early noghties.
6. Lafayette: The polar opposite of the Raiders — the Leopards' linebackers and defensive backs will still be fearsome, but will QB Andrew Shoop be able to pull together an offense to compete for the championship?
7. Fordham: Unable to qualify for the Patriot League Championship, new coach Joe Moorhead has different goals: Year One of his turnaround of the 1-10 Rams, and getting his team on the postseason all-Conference teams, an honor they didn't enjoy last year. They will get some guys on those teams, and should be better in 2012, but how much better?
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