November 18, 2011

Upstate underdogs hit the road

More news about: Hobart | St. John Fisher
Ryan Kramer started his career at St. John Fisher as a running back, but like his older brother Rob, ended up quarterbacking the Cardinals to the playoffs.
St. John Fisher athletics photo

By Andrew Lovell
D3sports.com

When 6 p.m. rolled around this past Sunday evening, the St. John Fisher football team wasn't gathered in front of a projector screen in the video room.

The players weren't side by side, nervously wondering if this year's team would get an NCAA playoff shot. The coaches weren't sitting with them, legs shaking in nervous anticipation.

Rather, when the NCAA selection show began, the players were in their own apartments and dorms. That was head coach Paul Vosburgh's call. The Cardinals, after all, were one of a number of 8-2 teams in the mix for a Pool C bid. The chances of an at-large berth appeared slim. Vosburgh simply didn't know what to expect, so why call the players together only to disappoint them?

You can imagine the team-wide surprise when the Cardinals were revealed as an at-large team, one scheduled to face Johns Hopkins in the first round of the Delaware Valley bracket.

"We were hopeful they would look at strength of schedule and all the other indicators too, and they did," Vosburgh said. "We were pleasantly surprised. ... Maybe they looked back at the history of both the Empire 8 and Fisher in the postseason and said, 'You know, the Empire 8's always done pretty well in the postseason as a conference.' Ithaca's always done well, Springfield's done well and we've done well, so maybe they looked at those things too."

Whatever criteria ultimately gave St. John Fisher the nod over other two-loss teams like St. Olaf, Bethel, Wheaton, Montclair State and Cortland State, not to mention one-loss Case and Endicott, quickly became irrelevant. Vosburgh rounded up his team and by 7 p.m., the Cardinals were celebrating their unexpected playoff berth. By 6 a.m. Monday, the coaching staff was breaking down video of Johns Hopkins, the undefeated Centennial Conference champion.

It's a 12-hour whirlwind unlike anything else a team faces all season. And, for virtually all of the Cardinals players, it's a new experience. St. John Fisher last made the NCAA playoffs in 2007, when it reached the NCAA quarterfinals a year after advancing to the NCAA semifinals in 2006.

But Vosburgh isn't looking for any sentimental satisfaction. He's focused on Johns Hopkins.

"They're a very good team," Vosburgh said. "They're very fast, very athletic and they're good in all aspects of the game. ... There's a lot of reasons they're 10-0."

Two of the biggest reasons are quarterback Hewitt Tomlin (2,459 yards, 23 touchdowns, five interceptions) and wide receiver Dan Wodicka (75 catches, 1,162 yards, six touchdowns). One of the Cardinals' main tasks will be slowing that potent duo.

St. John Fisher has playmakers in the secondary, highlighted by Dave Vosburgh and Troy Sant. Vosburgh, the son of head coach Paul Vosburgh, led the team with 99 tackles and nine pass breakups, while also adding 2.5 sacks and two interceptions. Sant, a 5-11 cornerback, led the Cardinals with seven interceptions. St. John Fisher has also weathered the storm of losing three of its top four linebackers, including all-Empire 8 standout Joe Leavell, to season-ending injuries.

Chris Sawyer, a converted defensive lineman, and Tyler Schier, a converted defensive back, have performed admirably in their adjusted roles. Brenden Moore, the last original starter standing, has turned in another strong season.

Defensively, the Cardinals should be able to at least slow down the Blue Jays' offense. Offensively, the Cardinals count on the three Ryans -- Kramer, Schmidt and Francis.

Kramer, an all-conference running back turned quarterback, has shined this year as a dual-threat option. Kramer has passed for 1,460 yards and 13 touchdowns against eight interceptions, and also run for 840 yards and 12 touchdowns. Vosburgh said the Cardinals, traditionally a team that features a pocket passer, had to adjust their offense when projected starter Tyler Fenti was lost for the year early in the season.

"Offensively we've evolved a little bit," Vosburgh said. "The year before, when we had Tim Bailey at quarterback, we were kind of throwing the ball all over the place. Now this year, we've changed a little bit, we're more of a running team, an option team, but we're still going to throw the ball because we've got a couple really good receivers."

Those receivers are Schmidt and Francis. How often does Kramer look for those two? Schmidt and Francis combined to catch 103 of Fisher's 141 completed passes this season, or 73 percent. As the three Ryans go, so too will the Cardinals' offense. What's impressive to note is the trio's success despite a largely green offensive line. Of the 10 offensive linemen on St. John Fisher's two-deep last season, nine graduated.

Only right tackle Corey Balcerzak was a returning starter this season, so the Cardinals experienced some growing pains up front. Vosburgh said the unit has grown each week and has improved markedly.

The Cardinals will head out Friday morning for Saturday's noon game, the winner of which will face the Delaware Valley-Norwich winner. But Vosburgh isn't looking ahead.

"They're outstanding," Vosburgh said. " ... They're just playing good. We've definitely got our hands full."

Hobart ready to roll

Sure, Hobart coach Mike Cragg could complain about a number of things.

He could complain about the eight-game schedule his team played this season -- though he admits some of that is his fault. He could complain about Hobart's placement as a No. 7 seed in the most difficult bracket in the tournament.

Instead, he'd rather focus on this -- Hobart is the Liberty League champion and is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

"Everyone knows what a great team [Hobart's first-round opponent Wesley is]," Cragg said. "I just told everyone, 'Hey, there's 32 great teams in this tournament and the matchups are what they are.' I'm just so thrilled to have won the Liberty League and to be able to be back in the NCAA tournament, it's just a blessing and the guys have been playing great."

While the odds are stacked against the Statesmen (seven of the top 19 teams in the country are in their bracket), Cragg is focused on preparing his team for its matchup with Wesley, a game that could have happened during the regular season.

Hobart was originally scheduled to play Widener, but with the addition of Stevenson to the MAC, Widener backed out of the game in January. Cragg tried to find a replacement, and had the opportunity to schedule a road game against Wesley. He opted not to.

"There was a possibility to travel to Wesley during the season and I decided not to do that, so we went with the eight [games] instead," Cragg said.

The short schedule didn't work against the Statesmen, as they ultimately ended up winning the Liberty League. The extra weeks off also worked in their favor.

"It really gave us a chance to heal up a little bit and to go back and work on your two-minute [drill] and a lot of different things that you hit during preseason, but maybe need more time," Cragg said. "It gave us more time to go back and polish up things. It felt really good."

Hobart has boasted one of the country's top defenses all season. They rank 21st in scoring defense (14.9 points per game) and 17th in total defense (259.1 yards allowed per game), and feature playmakers in each level of the defense.

Cornerback Drake Woodard, a four-year starter, leads the team with four interceptions and nine pass breakups. Linebackers Devin Worthington (41 tackles, six sacks) and Reggie Robinson (team-best 66 tackles) anchor the middle of the defense. Worthington, in particular, is a ball-hawking nightmare that can line up almost anywhere on defense.

Then there's freshman sensation Tyre Coleman, a defensive end who leads the country with 1.56 sacks per game (his 12.5 total sacks rank second). Coleman began the season in the defensive line rotation but broke out in Hobart's impressive 56-20 win over St. John Fisher.

"I said, 'From this point on, that boy's not coming off [the field],'" Cragg said. "He's done a great job for us."

It will be up to Coleman and Worthington to get pressure on Wesley quarterback Shane McSweeny. Hobart has had success pressuring opposing quarterbacks without blitzing this season, something that would be key against McSweeny, who isn't afraid to take off and run.

Offensively, the Statesmen have had a superb season from quarterback Nick Strang (1,483 yards, 15 touchdowns, nine interceptions), though his status is up in the air for this game. Cragg declined to comment on Strang's condition, but it's been reported the junior signal caller suffered a concussion in the regular season finale. Junior Kelly Olney finished out that game for Hobart.

The Statesmen will likely need Strang if they are to pull the upset, particularly against such a dynamic defense.

"They have probably the fastest defense that we've ever seen this year," Cragg said. "It reminds of, back in 2004 we played Rowan (a 45-14 second-round loss), it was that kind of a speed on defense. So they have a great, great defense."

Hobart heads down to Delaware on Friday morning to get in one last practice later that day. The game kicks off at noon Saturday.

"Are we an underdog?" Cragg said. "Certainly we're a big underdog and we're going to have to play that card all the way for our guys and try to take them down and make that win even sweeter."

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