Loss To Terps Put Towson On Road To Championship
By Steve Jones
The Towson Tigers used a gritty new attitude and an indomitable resilience to reverse the fortunes of a downtrodden football program this fall. Towson, which had won just six games during the previous three years, whipped many of the same opponents that had made life miserable for them during recent campaigns.
The Tigers won their first Colonial Athletic Association title and secured a playoff berth for the first time since moving to the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) in 1987. The Tigers' season ended Dec. 3 with a 40-38 loss to Lehigh at Johnny Unitas Stadium, but not before Towson made the greatest turnaround of any college football team in the nation.
The Tigers' sudden success stunned many observers, but the players and coaching staff knew the 2011 squad was strong and showed it every week.
"I knew we would make progress," third-year coach Rob Ambrose said. "But the time frame to be this good was unknown, because we didn't know how well we would match up with other teams in the CAA."
It wasn't one of the seven CAA victories during Towson's 9-3 season that was the turning point for the Tigers. It was a disappointing loss to Maryland at Byrd Stadium.
"We knew we had a chance to be competitive with them," Ambrose said. "But when the game was over, I told the players that not enough of them believed, but that the doubt should be completely erased. Now, the kids believe they can do anything."
A much-improved offensive performance was largely responsible for Towson's rise. After scoring a season-low three points at Maryland, the Tigers averaged 37.5 points during their final eight games. Two Tigers, freshman running back Terrance West and sophomore quarterback Grant Enders, were not part of the 1-10 team in 2010, but had a lot to do with the sudden improvement of the Tiger offense.
"Terrance didn't even play in our first game," Ambrose said of West, the CAA's Offensive Rookie of the Year, whose two scores against Lehigh raised his FCS-leading total to 29 touchdowns. "He has a very high ceiling and a great skill set, and he's such a hard-working kid. And Grant is a great leader, with a tremendous football IQ."
It's no surprise that Ambrose's peers named him CAA Coach of the Year. He also realizes the impact of his team's achievement on the university and the alumni.
"It's nice when you get to see your players smile and enjoy the success," said Ambrose, a 1993 Towson graduate. "Every guy who ever wore the Towson jersey knew that this could happen, and for our students, this is the new standard. The future of this place will be different because of what we've done."
Towson wasn't the only local football team to achieve greatness this fall. Johns Hopkins held off archrival McDaniel, 28-24, Nov. 12 to post the first perfect regular season in school history. Their 10-0 regular-season mark included wins against all nine opponents in the Centennial Conference, which the Blue Jays represented in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
A 23-12 first-round loss to St. John Fisher brought an end to Hopkins' season and the program's record 15-game winning streak, but coach Jim Margraff's team had plenty to celebrate. Senior quarterback Hewitt Tomlin, a finalist for the 2011 Gagliardi Trophy, which that is awarded to the nation's top NCAA Division III player, earned the conference's Offensive Player of the Year honor.
Tomlin, who completed 68 percent of his passes for nearly 2,700 yards and 24 touchdowns, received great protection from his offensive line all season. Four of his linemen received All-Centennial recognition, including seniors Ed Rodger, Roland Massimino and Doug Drummond and sophomore Armand Jenifer.
"We felt that 10-0 was a realistic goal," Tomlin said after Hopkins concluded its perfect regular season at McDaniel. "It's not really a dream come true, but a goal accomplished."
Tomlin wasn't the only Blue Jay to earn high honors. During his 22nd season on the sideline, Margraff received Coach of the Year recognition from his peers in the Centennial Conference.
"Our senior class is amazing, and I'm so proud of them," Margraff said. "It's hard to go 10-0, and you're going to have some close games. But I'm proud that our guys have won them."
Terrapins Do It Again
Maryland continues to be the dominant force in collegiate field hockey. Coach Missy Meharg's Terrapins rallied from two goals down to eclipse ACC rival North Carolina, 3-2, during an overtime thriller to repeat as NCAA champions.
The Terrapins have won five national championships during the last seven years, but this one may have been the most unlikely. Maryland trailed UNC by two goals with less than four minutes remaining in regulation when freshman Katie Gerzabek's score cut the lead in half. Senior Jemma Buckley scored the tying goal with no time left to send the game into overtime. The Terrapins won their eighth NCAA title on sophomore Jill Witmer's goal during the 81st minute.
The title didn't come easily. During the national quarterfinals, Maryland edged No. 3 Syracuse in overtime. The Terrapins rolled over second-seeded Old Dominion, which handed Maryland two of its four losses, by a 4-0 score during the semifinals before felling top-seeded North Carolina for the crown.
Sounds Of Winter
College basketball is finally in full bounce. It has been a slow beginning for most teams in the state of Maryland, but three Division I squads are off to strong starts, as of press time.
There were high expectations for the Loyola men's team, and the Greyhounds have met them. After losing its season opener at Wake Forest, Loyola won six straight, including a Dec. 3 road victory against traditional Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference power Siena, which kept Loyola unbeaten in league play. The Greyhounds have already topped Coppin State and UMBC, and a Dec. 10 win against longtime rival Mount St. Mary's gave coach Jimmy Patsos' team a sweep against its in-state rivals.
It's not a stretch to say Loyola may be the area's best men's team for years to come. Patsos, who recently recorded his 100th career victory, takes the Greyhounds to Rupp Arena on Dec. 22 for a matchup with perennial national contender Kentucky.
The Maryland women appear to have their best team in years. Coach Brenda Frese has guided undefeated Maryland to nine consecutive wins, including impressive triumphs against Georgetown and Michigan. The Terrapin lineup is balanced, with five players averaging in double figures. Sophomore forward Alyssa Thomas leads the way with a 15.9 point average (as of Dec. 12), but the Terrapins' most valuable player so far might be junior forward Tianna Hawkins, who was averaging a double-double in points (11.8) and rebounds (10.1) after the team's Dec. 11win at George Mason. Maryland, the nation's sixth-ranked team in early December, should remain perfect at least through the New Year.
It appears that Towson women's team is the most improved in the state. Coach Joe Mathews' Tigers absorbed their first two losses to a pair of national top 10 teams, Maryland and Connecticut. After posting just nine wins last season, the Tigers had a 7-2 record after a Dec. 10 win at St. Francis.
On To Season Two
While Hopkins and Salisbury made it to the NCAA Division III postseason football tournament, the goals were more modest at Stevenson University. The Mustangs' program made its debut this fall, and coach Ed Hottle was pleased with his team's progress.
"We got better every day, and our players now have an understanding of what it takes to play in the MAC," said Hottle, who came to Stevenson from Gallaudet University. "What sticks out to me is how hard our guys fought, even when they were down. That speaks to the character of the kids in our program."
With a roster consisting almost exclusively of freshmen, the Mustangs finished with a 2-8 record, including 1-7 in the Middle Atlantic Conference. Along the way, they identified key players who will be instrumental in the future. Junior quarterback C.J. Hopson, a transfer from Bucknell, led the team in rushing (580 yards, four touchdowns) and passed for 1,863 yards and 20 scores. The Mustangs' talented receiver tandem of sophomore Jeromie Miller and freshman Jae DeShields combined for 88 catches and 18 touchdowns. While the defensive unit surrendered more than 47 points per game, standout inside linebacker Donnell Brown (team-leading 126 tackles) is a cornerstone for a unit that figures to get better as it gets bigger.
"We're a long way from being a finished product on the defensive side of the ball," Hottle said. "We knew that with our aggressive, attacking-style defense, we could get burned from time to time. Our primary focus is getting bigger and stronger. It's an experience and strength issue, not a talent issue, and the players realize that."
Issue 168: December 2011