October 25, 2012

A Warrior for life

Steve Wiser has been with the Lycoming football program since he was a teenager.
Lycoming athletics photo by Ralph Wilson

Things could have turned out much differently for Steve Wiser.

Wiser, a three-sport athlete in high school, thought he would end up at Penn State as a wrestler. Sure, life as a Nittany Lion would have been grand, wrestling for one of the premier Division I programs in the country. But it never happened. Something pulled at Wiser, a lingering itch he's been unable to scratch for more than 40 years.

That competitive drive instead pushed Wiser to enroll at Lycoming College and play football for what was then one of the country's worst Division III programs.

"I wanted to be a part of turning something around and make an impact, make a difference," Wiser explains.

That was 1970. Fast forward to 2012, and Wiser is still making a difference. Wiser has been there for Lycoming's first winning season, its first undefeated regular season and its two Stagg Bowl appearances. He's been a Warrior for the past 43 years and shows no signs of slowing down.

"He has a life-time contract, as far as I'm concerned," said fifth-year head coach Mike Clark, also a former Lycoming player. "He can coach as long as he wants to. He's 60 [years old], I hope he coaches until he's at least 70."

It's difficult to truly appreciate how much this one man has meant to a program, but Wiser's impact is felt everywhere from team records to Lycoming's new turf field to the lives of thousands of Lycoming players over the last four decades. Wiser has served as the team's defensive coordinator since legendary coach Frank Girardi promoted him from linebackers coach in 1977. Girardi's first season as Lycoming's head coach was 1972, Wiser's junior season. The two, forever linked in Lycoming history, share a close bond -- Wiser calls Girardi his "second father."

Under Wiser's leadership, Lycoming's defense has been consistently solid for 30-plus seasons. Lycoming had the No. 1 total defense in the country in 1983 (the team also ranked No. 1 in 1975 when Wiser coached the linebackers). The Warriors' defense ranked among the country's best in rushing defense twice in the 1980s and among the best in scoring defense in 1999. In 16 different seasons, Wiser has coordinated the No. 1 overall defense in the MAC. And along the way, Wiser has helped guide the team to 12 NCAA playoff berths and a pair of Stagg Bowls -- one of just 14 programs to reach multiple Stagg Bowls.

"I've been very blessed," Wiser said. "God has been very, very good to me and put me in the right places at the right times and with the right people."

The football resume speaks for itself, but perhaps Wiser's greatest accomplishment has been molding young men and women for more than half his life. Wiser worked full-time as a social studies teacher at Williamsport Area High School from 1974 until 2006. Between his teaching and coaching, Wiser has impressed knowledge and values upon thousands of young adults.

Wiser, affectionately nicknamed "The Wizard" by Girardi, doesn't scream on the field, but he does stress communication. He isn't necessarily the biggest jokester, but he demands his players have fun. 

"The thing I love about Division III is the kids are doing it for nothing. They're doing it for the love of the game," Wiser said. "... If it's not fun, then that's crazy, especially at our level."

It's easy then to understand why Wiser would rather discuss the three weeks players spent last year helping those in need after a local flood, or the team's involvement in Favors Forward, a volunteer network based out of Lycoming County. The wins are nice -- and Lycoming has five of those in seven games this season -- but Wiser will just as happily tell you about the team bowling nights, or the team-wide points program created a few years ago in which players compete against each other. In the spring semester, six teams of players are drafted fantasy-football style and then ranked on a points system that considers grades, community service, weightlifting sessions, plyometric sessions and recruiting help.

It's all part of the family atmosphere that Girardi helped cultivate, and that Wiser and Clark maintain now. It's why Wiser never minds making 300-400 phone calls to former players, alumni and other supporters each summer for Lycoming's annual golf outing. 

"I've seen him on his office phone and his cell phone simultaneously," Clark said. "... I am incredibly fortunate that he is here as our assistant head coach and defensive coordinator. He's an incredible friend of mine. He's one of the best people I know, the most competitive person I know, and probably the hardest-working person I know."

It's why when, on recruiting visits, Wiser can look at prospective players and their families and guarantee "P.C." -- short for personal care -- and not athletic success. You can just hear it in is voice -- Wiser genuinely cares about the players as people, first of all.

Don't let that completely fool you though -- Wiser does get the most out of his players on the field. Clark likes to tell the story of cornerback Rick Bealer, arguably the best all-around player in Lycoming's history. Wiser, in preparing for the Warriors' 1990 semifinal matchup with Hofstra, decided it fit the team's game plan better to have Bealer at free safety. Bealer played well and the Warriors advanced to their first Stagg Bowl.

There are more recent examples. Take Ryan Yaple, a 2007 graduate. Yaple, a local product, wanted nothing more than to play middle linebacker. After waiting his turn for two seasons, he finally got the chance to start in his junior year. But just three games into that season, Wiser asked Yaple if he'd consider moving up front to the defensive line, where the Warriors were thin. Yaple ultimately agreed. Two years later, he was a D3football.com All-American.

Or take junior Kabongo Bukasa, a super-athletic linebacker and the team's leading tackler that started as a struggling safety. Senior defensive end Nate Oropollo, who has a team-high 8.5 sacks, came in as a linebacker. Wiser just has a knack for finding players' perfect spots.

Perhaps that's because, as a coach, Wiser has seen virtually every possible offensive formation, motion and play design in his four decades at Lycoming. Wiser said he doesn't blitz as much as he used to, and it's fine if teams think the Warriors are running a simplistic 4-3 defense. What those teams aren't seeing is the intricate formations and subtle differences in formations. And, maybe most importantly, he's willing to ask anyone -- anyone -- for tips, pointers, thoughts, advice or strategies.

Clark said he even spotted Wiser chatting with the Brockport State offensive staff after the Warriors' season-opening loss to the Golden Eagles. He was just trying to get a better sense of what they saw, trying to glean as much information as possible.

"Even still today after 39 years, when I stop learning, I'm going to quit the game," Wiser said. "You still learn. You know who you learn about from? The players."

Wiser has taken elements from different defensive schemes over the years to constantly evolve with the game itself, but his core values have never changed.

"It's about discipline, it's about fundamentals, and I'm just a big believer in not a lot of thinking," Wiser said. "The less you have kids thinking, the more aggressive they are."

The key to success, Wiser said, is visualization. If a player wants to make a sack or an interception, he must first visualize it. This is a lesson Wiser has applied to his own life, even outside of football. 

"I [tell players], 'Say your prayers when you go to bed at night, but also take five, 10 minutes at night or in the morning when you wake up [to] visualize yourself making that sack or intercepting that ball,' " Wiser said. " 'Go through the film, the scouting report in your head, OK?' "

Wiser, as humble as he is successful, deflects much of the credit to his family, his wife Pam and long-time Lycoming defensive assistant coaches Mike Weber and Steve Radocaj. 

"It's not a job," Wiser said. "It's a passion, it's a love, you have fun. I've been very, very fortunate."

Wiser said he knows he will definitely coach another five years. After that, he's not willing to make any promises. He's already in the Lycoming Hall of Fame as both a football player and wrestler. He's played an integral role in the team's two Stagg Bowl runs -- 1990 and again in 1997, when the Warriors defeated Rowan in the infamous "Wind Bowl" national semifinal game before falling to Mount Union in the title game. So, what is left for this man to accomplish?

"Sure I'd love to win a national championship," Wiser said. "[But] it's for the kids, that's what the game is about. I think that's lost sometimes at all levels, from Pop Warner up. It's about the kids."

Cortland State in charge of its own destiny

This past Saturday's Cortland State-Rowan tilt was as tight and closely contested as most expected. Cortland and Rowan, after all, are two of the top three teams in the NJAC (to leave out Kean would be unfair).

Cortland emerged with a 24-21, but are the Red Dragons really the better team? There's no way to definitively answer that, but the numbers certainly support that sentiment. Cortland has now won six straight after a season-opening loss to Buffalo State. The Red Dragons' offense has gained at least 400 total yards in seven consecutive games, a school record. And senior quarterback Chris Rose, perhaps the biggest key to Cortland's success, has looked poised and polished.

Saturday's game could have gone either way. The two teams traded leads four different times, including late in the fourth quarter when Rose connected with D.J. Spencer on the go-ahead, 33-yard touchdown. Cortland's opportunistic defense forced four Rowan turnovers, including a pair of interceptions off quarterback Louie Bianchini.

Cortland faces Kean this weekend in another critical NJAC matchup. The winner of that game (Kean hosts) will hold sole possession of first place in the NJAC with just two weeks remaining. Cortland faces William Paterson and Ithaca in its final two games, while Rowan finishes up with Morrisville State, Kean and TCNJ.

Things are still far from settled in the NJAC, but this much seems clear -- either Cortland State, Rowan or Kean will earn the conference's automatic NCAA bid.

Hobart bullies RPI
For two months now, we've watched Hobart dominate teams in every aspect on Saturdays. Is it safe to say, finally, that this is one of the most complete teams in the country? I feel comfortable in answering, "yes."

Hobart pounded RPI, one of the few Liberty League teams thought capable of competing with Hobart, 35-7 on Saturday. But even the final score doesn't reflect the true rout this was. Hobart piled up 334 rushing yards -- Steven Webb led the way with 130 -- and held RPI to just 12 net rushing yards. Keep in mind that RPI's offense is led by Mike Hermann, one of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks in the region. Hermann was also intercepted twice by dynamic linebacker Devin Worthington, and sacked twice -- once by Worthington and once by dominant defensive end Tyre Coleman.

Webb, Bobby Dougherty (98 yards, two TDs) and Dominique Ellis (69) ran all over RPI's defense, thanks in large part to the holes regularly opened up by Hobart's offensive line.

Hobart will likely face its last potential challenge Saturday when it hosts Union. But after a performance like this past weekend's, it's becoming harder and harder to picture Hobart losing to a Liberty League team. This is a sure-fire playoff team with the players and potential to win a few games.

Salisbury holds off Alfred

Alfred came close -- closer, in fact, than any other Empire 8 team has in the last two years. Ultimately, the Saxons suffered the same result as all the other Empire 8 teams to challenge Salisbury -- a loss.

Isaiah Taylor rushed for a pair of touchdowns as Salisbury held on for a 24-21 win against Alfred, strengthening its hold on the Empire 8 lead. This was an ugly, defensive battle between two of the strong, more consistent defensive teams in the country. Salisbury forced a pair of turnovers, but Alfred forced three (all fumble recoveries). The biggest difference? Salisbury's Andre Carter returned a first-quarter Alfred fumble 38 yards for a touchdown.

The Sea Gulls pushed their lead to 24-7 on Taylor's five-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. But Alfred pulled to within 24-21 after a pair of Chuck Beckwith TD runs in a span of just over three minutes. That was as close as Alfred would get though, as Salisbury burned off the final 5:19 in regulation with eight straight runs and two kneel downs.

Salisbury's Greg Stanton (12 tackles, one INT, two pass breakups) led a strong defensive effort by Salisbury. The Sea Gulls held the Saxons' potent rushing attack to 110 yards on 41 attempts -- an average of 2.7 yards per carry. Salisbury's triple-option offense wasn't able to get much going either, totaling just 187 yards on 51 carries (3.7 per carry).

This was a battle between two playoff-level teams. Salisbury, ranked No. 7 in the D3football.com Top 25 poll, is an established contender at this point. Alfred is perhaps overlooked, but has the right combination -- experience, strong running game and defense, solid coaching -- to make another NCAA run. Unfortunately, the Saxons might fall victim to the numbers game. With only three games left, Alfred can't win more than seven regular-season games. A Pool C bid seems out of reach. Alfred will need Salisbury to stumble to make a run at the Empire 8 title.

Widener edges Lycoming in final minute

There are no moral victories in football. At least that's what they usually say.

But Lycoming did some things this past Saturday that no team has this season. The Warriors held Widener below 40 points, they intercepted Chris Haupt four times and they nearly defeated a team that had won all but one game by at least 36 points. But Lycoming could not prevent a 34-yard TD pass from Haupt to Anthony Davis in the final minute, and it could not prevent a 28-23 loss to Widener.

With the win, the Pride sit firmly in the driver's seat in the MAC. With games still remaining against Albright and Delaware Valley, the conference isn't wrapped up. But it's Widener's for the taking.

Lycoming, which got touchdown runs from Parker Showers and Matt Atkinson in the loss, is in a tough spot, but with games remaining against Wilkes, Stevenson and Misericordia, an 8-2 record (8-1 MAC) is a very real possibility. Would that be enough to get the Warriors in the playoffs? Maybe not, but the win over Delaware Valley in Week 2 is looking better and better each week.

Haupt threw for 395 yards and four TDs in the win, but was also picked off four times. Still, the senior has been every bit as explosive as the Pride could have hoped for. I would expect to see Haupt's name of the list of finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy again this season.

Top 25: Cortland State joins rankings

Cortland State, after its win against Rowan, checked in at No. 23 in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll.

Empire 8 rivals Salisbury and St. John Fisher held steady at No. 7 and No. 24, respectively. Hobart climbed one spot to No. 10, while Widener rose two spots to No. 12.

Alfred, Rowan and Delaware Valley also received votes this week.

Quick hits

Alquann Jones (130 yards, one TD), Kyle Schuberth (115 yards, three TDs) and Darren Parrott (100 yards, two TDs) helped Delaware Valley rush for 551 yards in a 70-0 rout of first-year program Misericordia. The Aggies won their fifth straight after back-to-back losses to open the season. ... Cody Miller scored on a 36-yard TD run late in the fourth quarter to clinch St. John Fisher's 21-17 win against Ithaca. Miller finished with 208 rushing yards and three scores as Fisher won its seventh straight against Ithaca. ... Chris Johnson's 11-yard TD run in the final minute of regulation secured Kean's 34-30 victory against TCNJ. Deandre Fowlkes caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a score in the Cougars' win, its fifth in a row. ... T.J. Franzese rushed for 174 yards and a pair of scores as Union defeated Rochester 20-7. Union intercepted Rochester quarterback Dean Kennedy four times and surrendered just 36 net rushing yards. ... T.J. Luddy connected on a pair of TD passes with Scott Pillar as Albright scored the first 41 points in a 41-10 win over King's. ... Andrew Benkwitt shredded Hartwick's defense to the tune of 324 yards and four TDs in Utica's 43-7 win. Seven different Pioneers defenders tallies sacks, as Utica won its third straight. ... Joe Scibilia passed for 444 yards and two TDs and added another score on a three-yard TD run in Brockport State's 42-7 victory against Western Connecticut. Both touchdowns and 252 of Scibilia's passing yards went to Andrew Mrozek. ... Leo Kyte threw a pair of first-quarter TD passes to help spark Lebanon Valley's 41-14 win over FDU-Florham. ... Ryan Lehotsky and Casey Kacz each threw touchdown passes in Buffalo State's 22-7 win vs. Frostburg State. ... Jonathan Marrero rushed for 103 yards and two scores and Mike Davis added 82 yards and a TD in Springfield's 33-20 win against St. Lawrence. ... Ryan Gresik tosses three TD passes and Andre Snead returned a second-quarter interception 33 yards for a score as William Paterson beat Morrisville State 31-6 for its first NJAC win of the season. ... Mario Colangelo rushed for 92 yards and Alex Coviello ran for 80 yards and a pair of scores in Merchant Marine's 28-13 win over WPI. ... Jordan Fredo's 20-yard field goal with 11 seconds left in regulation clinched Wilkes' 38-35 win against Stevenson. Patrick Ingulli rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns as Wilkes matched its win total from 2011.

Looking ahead

For a second straight week, No. 23 Cortland State (6-1, 6-0) will play with first place in the NJAC on the line. Kean (5-2, 5-0) hosts Cortland at 1 p.m. Saturday in a key game. A win for Cortland puts the Red Dragons in firm control of their own destiny. A win for Kean puts the Cougars in the driver's seat.

No. 10 Hobart (7-0, 4-0) will put its undefeated record on the line when it hosts Union (4-3, 4-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Statesmen have yet to be seriously challenged this season, and the Dutchmen likely represent the Liberty League's last chance to do so.

In order to keep its hopes of a fifth straight MAC title alive, Delaware Valley (5-2, 5-1) will need a win when it travels to Lebanon Valley (5-2, 4-2) for a 1 p.m. game Saturday. Delaware Valley faces MAC leader Widener in its season opener, but will likely need to its next two games to have that final game matter.

Other games of note: Salisbury (6-1, 4-0) at Ithaca (4-3, 2-3), noon, Saturday; Albright (5-2, 4-2) at Widener (7-0, 6-0), 1 p.m., Saturday; Lycoming (5-2, 5-1) at Wilkes (4-3, 3-3), 1 p.m., Saturday; Alfred (4-2, 3-1) at Utica (5-2, 3-1), 2 p.m., Saturday.

Contact me

I'm always happy to hear from you, whether its questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com. You can also follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell), and be sure to get involved in the discussions on the Around the East thread on the message board.

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Andrew Lovell

Andrew Lovell is an associate news editor for ESPN.com and a former sports staff writer/editor for the New Britain Herald (Conn.). He has contributed freelance work to ESPN Rise and has been a regular contributor to D3football.com since 2007. Andrew has also written for a number of daily newspapers in New York, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ithaca Journal and Auburn Citizen. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 with B.A. in Sport Media and a minor in writing. A native of Hyde Park, N.Y., Andrew currently resides in New Britain. 

2006-10 columnist: Adam Samrov 

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