BETHLEHEM, PA - It's amazing to contemplate that only two players on Lehigh's spring roster, both fifth-year seniors, experienced anything resembling a regular, fifteen practice, spring season.
LB Nate Norris had played in 2017 as a freshman in head coach Andy Coen's final Championship season, mostly on special teams. He took part in spring activities in 2018 and 2019, only a few months after head coach Tom Gilmore took over the program.
He was joined by rising sophomore TE Alex Snyder, who started a couple of games as a true freshman in Andy Coen's final season.
And then nothing resembling a typical college football schedule was able to occur for the next three years.
"It really is incredible that none of our players [except Nate and Alex] have gone through Spring Ball until now," head coach Tom Gilmore told me this week. "The pandemic hit everyone at the same time, but we were in a very unique stage with our program at that point. Having just gone through a coaching transition and the tragic events surrounding Coach Coen's health, we had a very young and inexperienced team going in, which presented some unique challenges during those semesters that we were locked down or under strict protocols."
The national lockdown in March of 2020 happened just before Lehigh was scheduled to open spring practice of that year. It was one of the first sports activities cancelled due to COVID-19, followed by the regular fall 2020 schedule. An abbreviated spring schedule took place instead in the middle of the pandemic instead, which was chaotic and pretty much didn't follow any of the regular norms that a developmental fifteen practice spring would have. A fall 2021 schedule followed quickly thereafter.
"Coming out of it, we had very few seniors and with them now graduating, most of our team is just completing a somewhat normal academic year for the first time," Gilmore continued. "The returning players are completing their first full cycle of regular season - winter workouts - Spring Ball. It was a completely new experience for them and they now understand how much development happens from the end of the season to the start of the following preseason camp."
At times it felt like a struggle for Lehigh football to get through - losing all three spring games and then starting the season 0-8 - but in November, things started to finally click, with the Mountain Hawks winning three straight games to end the year. Most satisfyingly, their 17-10 win over Lafayette would give Tom Gilmore his first win over Lafayette as head football coach and create a tremendous headwind going into the spring season.
"Winning the last game of the season always sets a positive tone for the off-season, but winning the last three, created an even stronger positive vibe," Gilmore said. "That is a good thing as long as you keep it going - you can't assume it will keep going by itself. You have to use that momentum to energize your work in order to continue the necessary improvements needed to beat the best opponents."
.@LehighFootball head coach Tom Gilmore recaps spring camp and the Brown and White Game on the season finale of Lehigh Sports Central presented by Lehigh Valley Orthopedic Institute, part of @LVHN— Lehigh Sports (@LehighSports) April 27, 2022
Full Video 👉 https://t.co/qvLJCxY5Bh pic.twitter.com/JXqVw3ZqES
This Saturday at Murray Goodman Stadium, in an unscored scrimmage, what was once a young, inexperienced team last year looked sharp and had some good moments, especially with the first-team players that gave the Mountain Hawks success at the end of 2021. QB Dante Perri, especially, seemed to pick up where he left off with a strike to WR Eric Johnson, looking nothing like the QB who started the fall of 2021 fourth on the quarterback depth chart. His meteoric rise to the top of the depth chart gave desperately-needed stability to the position and set up their November success.
"One of the best things that we can take from last fall is the experience so many players acquired. We had a younger roster so many returning players had opportunities to play, including Dante at the end of the year," Gilmore said. "He is a good example of making the best of that opportunity to get actual game experience. He worked hard to improve his game and it showed in his performance as he gained more experience and confidence. I think the same is true for the entire program."
“For the most part we’re making good strides,” Perri told Keith Groller of The Morning Call. “A lot of the guys are getting good experience, which is something we lacked last spring because we were preparing to play games and didn’t have a lot of time to get guys reps. Getting reps under our belt, seeing different looks, playing together, and getting more comfortable with each other is benefiting us right now.”
Other standouts were RB Zaythan Hill and RB Jack DiPietro, who both had some big runs, DL Mikhari Sibblis, who registered a sack and a pass breakup, and DL Trevor Harris, who had two sacks as well.
Four QBs saw action: Perri, junior QB Hank Shapiro, senior QB Nigel Summerville, and sophomore QB Matt Rauscher.
"Going into the spring game, I would have to say that the defense was a little ahead overall but the offense had its best day on Saturday," Gilmore said. "That means the defense didn't perform as well on that particular day, so they were rightfully disappointed afterwards. However, there were plenty of positives for them, in particular with the first unit, and they made significant strides over the course of the month. It was great to see how the offense progressed over those fifteen practices. It makes everyone that much more excited about what we are capable of doing if we put in the time and effort over the summer to keep the momentum going."
Before the game, junior DL Ben Murphy was awarded the James S. Gum scholarship. The scholarship was established in August 2006 and is to honor James S. Gum who lost a six-year year battle with A.L.S. in May 2006. Murphy is a native of Haverford, Pa., and made five starts of the 2021 season on the defensive line.
"Now, it is important that we build on that experience and improvement to get to the competitive level we need to beat our opponents this fall," Gilmore said. "We are certainly not there yet, but we are much further along than we were at this point last year."