Thursday, November 15, 2012

These Seniors Stayed the (Obstacle) Course


BY JAY GREENBERG

Few college athletes have known the trouble that Princeton’s football class of 2013 has seen:  Three life-threatening illnesses of teammates, devastating injuries to key players, the unexpected firing of the coaching staff that had recruited them and 24 losses in their first 30 games.

Long seasons. Long vigils for Jordan Culbreath, Chuck Dibilio and Khamal Brown. More gratifying for these seniors than making it all the way to Saturday’s finish is their feeling that they are anything but anxious for it to end.
Shane Wilkinson '13

“Above everything else,” said Shane Wilkinson. “I am just proud to be a part of this class, to have gone through what I went through with these guys.

“I hope we can finish it right. But regardless of what happens Saturday, we have laid a foundation for the future.”

For these survivors, that is a reward greater than the prospect of a first winning season in six; better than Saturday night’s bonfire after a game against Dartmouth to celebrate wins over Harvard and Yale; perhaps even better than the possible 3-way tie for the Ivy League championship, should Princeton and Harvard win and Penn lose at Cornell.  

Princeton’s seniors figure they already have won more than just one game’s difference between 6-4 and 5-5, most of them saying their deepest motivation for their final game is simply in beating a Dartmouth team that has defeated them in the last two meetings. The Tigers ended five-game losing streaks to Brown and Harvard this year and this would be one more notch in their belts.

“To me the difference between 6-4 and 5-5 is that it will mean a win over an Ivy League school,” said Joe Cloud.
Joe Cloud '13

Win or lose, a bonfire celebrating two other wins this season will proceed three hours after the game on Cannon Green regardless, which is fine by Coach Bob Surace. 

“I’m happy its Saturday instead of Friday, I don’t want it to be a distraction,” Surace said.  “After the season you can celebrate wins over Harvard and Yale whether it’s on Saturday, Monday or Tuesday.

“Last week of the season there are so many distractions.  The (Sunday night team) banquet. Senior Day. Bonfires.  Let’s focus on Dartmouth.”

But the coach already is celebrating one thing, and not prematurely:  His relationship with the seniors he inherited as sophomores.

“Once you join a family, it’s your family,” said Surace. “These guys aren’t [Roger Hughes’s] guys,  they are our guys. 

“Whether they wanted me or I wanted them it didn’t matter, they had to get better and I had to get better. 

“After two [1-9] seasons prior to this year, as a coach you wonder about accountability. Were they going to be all in?  This group has never missed a beat.  They get the credit now because they did the work.

“I told the team many times they have to take ownership, too. This is our team, not my team. I’m a good listener to those guys, it if is something that makes sense. At their suggestion, we don’t meet any more on Wednesday mornings so they can have more rest. 

Matt Landry '13
“These seniors, All Ivy guys and everybody, have come out and practiced hard every day and enjoyed doing it. That’s essential. The accountability for this group has been tremendous thanks in part to the example the seniors have set and I am really happy for them.  I am going to miss coaching all these seniors.”

It is clear Hughes recruited good players, just not enough of them. The depth from Surace’s sophomore and freshman classes has enabled this turnaround but these seniors led it. Bright young persons of many dimensions attend Princeton. These guys weren’t going to lose scholarships by finding something else on campus to do. But they took ownership of seeing the football program turn.

“Anytime the carpet is ripped out from under your feet (by the coaching change) it is going to be an adjustment,” said captain Andrew Starks.  “There were tough times along the way but [Princeton] has a way of assuring you that you made the right decision.

“I think the guys did a tremendous job. Through the adversity we have  -- illness, injuries, a lot of losses we did a tremendous job of handling it and staying focused.
           
Clearly, they bought in.

“It was clear the first time we met with Coach Surace that the things he thought had to be addressed were the same things I thought had to be addressed,” said Matt Landry.  “It’s not easy to be a football player here under any circumstances and we dealt with a lot of setbacks, probably more than most seniors will go through over four years.

“I knew we were on the right track. And I’m grateful it started to happen while I’m still here.”

TIGER TALES

With Connor Michelsen’s throwing arm in a sling through the Tuesday and Wednesday practices and the starting quarterback’s availability being a Friday decision at best, Surace was asked if it might dictate more of a running game plan with Quinn Epperly. “Earlier in the year maybe,” said the coach. “But Quinn’s completion percentage is essentially the same as Connor’s. He has improved so much as a passer.”  . . Di Andre Atwater (ankle) is moving better but has missed too much time to likely see any action Saturday, although he probably will dress.  

Kevin Mill '13
Saddest practice sight this week was Kevin Mill, whose knee rehab lasted just one play of the Harvard game, standing on the sidelines at practice,  the fine right OT’s hopes of playing in his last college game gone.. “I’ve known about the possibility for a few weeks now, but I think it will really hit on Saturday,” Mill said.  “It’s tough, but it is what it is. 

 “Obviously, the teams success make it a little easier. Coach (Eddy) Morrissey talks about getting paid for the work we put in and this has been awesome.  And I’m getting a Princeton degree. Never thought that would happen.”
           
Princetontigersfootball.com will not go into hibernation following the final game.  Within the next two weeks we will be posting season follow-ups including 1) A sitdown with Bob Surace reflecting back on the season and looking forward to 2013; 2) The coach’s tribute to each individual senior  3) Our look back at the highlights and lowlights and honorees for the 2012 season.

Every other week from December until the beginning of spring practice, we will be posting features on alumni, historical lookbacks to great Princeton seasons and performers and, of course, any off-season news or developments.  Your input remains welcome at jaygreenbergsports@gmail.com.   

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