Johnson, Mustangs find themselves peaking at right time

More news about: Morrisville State
Under coach Curt Fitzpatrick, Morrisville State quarterback Lemar Johnson has flourished.
Morrisville State athletics photo

When Lemar Johnson steps on the field this Saturday in the biggest football game of his life, he will be guiding a team in the midst of its most important moment.

It's fitting that Johnson and the Morrisville State football team will experience new heights together. The two are forever linked.

Johnson, a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, broke a combined 16 program records last season as a junior -- four single-game, seven season and five career records. As a senior, he's been even better. Johnson currently ranks among the top 35 nationally in passing yards, passing touchdowns, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.

He's helped guide Morrisville State to uncharted territory. The Mustangs enter their regular-season finale against Montclair State with a 7-2 overall record (5-1 in the NJAC). The program entered the 2014 season with just 13 wins over its first eight seasons. And, with a win Saturday against the Red Hawks, the Mustangs would clinch a share of the NJAC title.

"I don't think anyone at Morrisville would have it would have been attainable just a few years ago," second-year head coach Curt Fitzpatrick said.

But Morrisville State's emergence could have been delayed even further had Johnson not returned to the program after a one-year absence.

Johnson started all 10 games at quarterback as a sophomore in 2011, but missed the following year after being dismissed due to academics. He spent the next year getting his studies in order at a community college, and was cleared to return to the team in July, 2013, roughly one month after Fitzpatrick was hired.

"I'm proud of where he's gone because he could have never come back to school, or not worked so hard to be where he is," Fitzpatrick said.

Johnson's athleticism is undeniable. The 6-1, 195-pound right-hander is a gifted runner, and even earned a spot in SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays for his hurdle over a Kean defender earlier this season.

But Fitzpatrick, himself a former quarterback, has excelled at developing quarterbacks as an assistant coach, most notably working with St. John Fisher's Rob Kramer and Utica's Andrew Benkwitt. Rather than refine Johnson's already-strong skillset, Fitzpatrick simply wanted him to embrace the mentality of a pocket passer.

"Everyone has told him, ever since he's been playing quarterback," Fitzpatrick said, "that he was a running quarterback, a scrambling quarterback."

Johnon still runs -- and runs well -- but his confidence as a pocket passer, and ability to read defenses have grown under Fitzpatrick's tutelage.

"He's like the first QB coach I've really had that like really worked on me with my footwork, how to throw the ball, just reading defenses," Johnson said. "He's taught me a lot."

The Morrisville Hurdle

Lemar Johnson's athleticism landed him on ESPN for this play.

Johnson, an Ossining, N.Y., native, isn't shy, but he can be a man of few words. He'd rather lead by example than with vocal speeches, and he does just that despite not being a team captain. He deflected talk of his own accomplishments and instead focused on junior Anthony Gray and senior Josh Powell, one of the NJAC's top wide receiver duos, and the team's offensive line, anchored by senior center Adrian Cabrera.

"I can't take all the credit for it. I've got good teammates," Johnson said.

Junior running back Cristian Pena (669 rushing yards, 9 TDs to Johnson's 931 rushing yards, 11 TDs) has had another strong season. Junior linebacker Colton Evans (NJAC-leading eight sacks) and junior safety Caleb Wright are two key standouts on a defense that has zero senior starters.

In Fitzpatrick's two seasons, the Mustangs have gone a combined 10-9. In the previous seven seasons of the program, the team went 10-59. That marked improvement has already impacted recruiting, as well as the broader perception of the program in New York State, Fitzpatrick said.

"I've been lucky enough, fortunate enough to experience rebuilding at two previous places -- one as a player and coach at Fisher and then as a coach at Utica," Fitzpatrick said. "I think that's helped. It surely gives me hope having seen it, for sure."

Montclair State won its meeting with Morrisville State last season, 34-21. But the Mustangs tied the game at 21-21 early in the fourth quarter. The opportunity was there to pull out a win.

Now an even bigger opportunity presents itself. And Johnson, Fitzpatrick and the rest of the Morrisville State football team are embracing it.

"This is probably the biggest game I've ever had in my life," Johnson said. "I've got a lot of people depending on me for this game."

Hobart, St. Lawrence set up crucial game

Hobart and St. Lawrence have both played five Liberty League games. They've both yet to lose.

Of course, they haven't played each other yet, so that will change this Saturday.

Hobart, coming off a 30-6 win against Union, and St. Lawrence, coming off a 20-7 win against WPI, enter Saturday's matchup with plenty of momentum. Hobart stands undefeated, and hasn't lost a conference game since 2011.

St. Lawrence, just two seasons removed from a winless year, has won its last six games and is an impressive 10-2 in conference play over the past two seasons.

The Statesmen won last year's matchup in rather convincing fashion, defeating the Saints, 37-7. St. Lawrence hosts this year's game, and will hope it can get a few big plays -- like Evan Lapice's 80-yard interception return and James Holley-Grisham's 52-yard punt return for touchdowns against WPI -- to upset the favored Statesmen.

St. John Fisher, Ithaca set for clash

The Empire 8 champion will either be St. John Fisher or Ithaca. Or the two will share the crown.

So this Saturday's head-to-head matchup is just a tad important. If Fisher wins, it clinches the conference title. If Ithaca wins, it clinches at least a share of it. The Bombers would need Alfred to beat St. John Fisher on Nov. 15 to secure it for them outright.

Ithaca rebounded from consecutive losses to Buffalo State and Frostburg State to defeat Salisbury and, just this past weekend, Brockport State by a 24-14 margin. Tom Dempsey completed just 11 of his 25 pass attempts, but he did throw two touchdowns to Ben Cary. Josh Oliver rushed for 166 yards and a score.

Fisher has rattled off four straight wins after its lone loss of the season to Salisbury, most recently with its 35-25 win against Buffalo State this past weekend. Tyler Fenti was sharp, passing for 318 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for an additional 52 yards and two TDs.

Ithaca snapped its seven-game losing streak in the series last season. It will need to make it two in a row if it hopes to repeat as sole Empire 8 champions.

Quick hits

Terrant Morrison rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns, Ameer Sorrell returned an interception 69 yards for a score and Widener held off Stevenson, 34-23, to stay unbeaten. ... Denzel Nieves rushed for 128 yards and two TDs, and C.J. Conway returned Montclair State's fifth interception of John Grassi 23 yards for a score in the Red Hawks' 30-20 win over Cortland State. ... Aaron Wilmer threw a pair of TDs to Rasheed Bailey and Chris Smallwood rushed for 169 yards and a score as Delaware Valley held off King's, 24-21. ... Bobby Barbieri and Darren Dungee each returned interceptions for touchdowns and Jared Sanchez returned a blocked extra point 98 yards for a two-point score in Rowan's 25-6 win over Southern Virginia. ... Trevor Monk connected on a 22-yard field goal as time expired to give Alfred a 23-21 win against Salisbury. ... Craig Needhammer rushed for 239 yards and a touchdown, Blake Bowman added 149 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and Tyler Jenny tossed a pair of TD passes in Lycoming's 28-14 victory against Misericordia. ... Ben Sasu and Ken Emmons each rushed for a pair of touchdowns in Frostburg State's 35-21 win over Hartwick. ... Dan Sobolewski connected on five of his seven field goal attempts, including two from more than 40 yards, and Albright edged Wilkes, 36-35, in OT when the Colonels' two-point conversion attempt failed. ... Trevor Osler threw two touchdowns and Matt Fleck returned an interception 64 yards for a score as TCNJ upended Kean, 20-10. ... Brian Murphy passed for 229 yards and four touchdowns, and Brendon Irving rushed for 126 yards and two TDs as Lebanon Valley routed FDU-Florham, 63-21.

Top 25: Hobart moves up

Hobart climbed one spot to No. 7 in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll.

Widener (No. 13), St. John Fisher (No. 15) and Delaware Valley (No. 19) all checked in among the top 20 teams. Montclair State broke into the rankings at No. 23.

St. Lawrence and Ithaca both received votes this week. 

Looking ahead

Ithaca (6-2, 5-2) at No. 15 St. John Fisher (7-1, 5-1), noon, Saturday; No. 7 Hobart (8-0, 5-0) at St. Lawrence (7-1, 5-0), 1 p.m., Saturday; Morrisville State (7-2, 5-1) at No. 23 Montclair State (7-1, 5-0), 1 p.m., Saturday: All three of these matchups pit the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Empire 8, Liberty League and NJAC, respectively. Essentially, we're being treated to three conference title games this Saturday -- and likely a fourth next Saturday, when Widener hosts Delaware Valley.

Contact me

I'm always happy to hear from you, whether its questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me by email at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com and follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell).

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Jason Bowen

Jason Bowen has 10 years of Division III coaching experience at Wesley, where he was also the Sports Information Director. He currently provides color analysis on broadcasts of Wesley games on WDEL Radio 1150AM and has served as a staff and freelance writer for the Delaware State News in Dover. He has been a contributor for D3football.com since 2006. By day he teaches high school biology. He is a 1992 graduate of and three-year letter winner at linebacker for Mansfield (Pa.) University.

2006-10 columnist: Adam Samrov
2011-14 columnist: Andrew Lovell

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