We are smack dab in the middle of the college football off-season, passing the halfway point just a few weeks ago. It has been six weeks since the Penn State hockey team played in the NCAA tournament in Allentown and also since Pat Chambers’ basketball team hoisted the NIT Championship trophy.
A little more than three months remain before James Franklin will lead his team onto the field to kick off the 2018 season. The Black Shoe Diaries annual countdown to the start of the football season will begin later this month. There is time to anticipate the coming sports season but also time to take a look back and be thankful for the progress that has recently been made.
While retailers will push their ‘Christmas in July’ sales over the summer, we are going to sit down and give thanks for the offerings that the Penn State athletic department has brought to the table in the recent years. Let’s feast on the good news from the recent past and also glow in the prospect of what is to come this fall.
Just Three Years Ago...
Football- Three years ago the Penn State football team was coming off a 7-6 season which featured a loss to Temple in the opening week and four losses to end the year. Christian Hackenberg had just been drafted in the second round by the New York Jets and there was speculation as to whether the Lions would be able to replace the three-year starter.
The offensive line play was atrocious in 2015 and the only glimmer of hope was that there was talent in the pipeline; if we could just hang in there for a year or two, it would get better. Many fans wished that the team could return to national relevance but that hope seemed far off.
Fast-forward three years. James Franklin has taken the program back to where most fans agree that it should be, and there is no reason to believe that a major drop-off is in sight. Trace McSorley will return for his third season as the starting quarterback and is considered one of the top college football quarterbacks in the game. The offensive line remains young but it is no longer inexperienced; the talented players have logged enough snaps in previous years for their age to no longer be a factor.
Penn State has played in two consecutive New Year’s Six bowl games, the Rose Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl. There has been a glimmer of hope in each of the past two seasons for the team to reach the playoffs, while those aspirations fell just short. It has been a great recent run and the future looks bright. When considering the three seasons prior to 2015 and the atmosphere surrounding the team and its players, we have a great deal for which to be thankful.
Basketball- Three years ago Pat Chambers was just breaking ground on the Philadelphia recruiting pipeline. Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens were about to join the team as two of the highest-profile recruits that the program has ever attained; Mike Watkins was ready to hit the floor following a red-shirt season. All three came through the newly-constructed Philly pipeline; a project built with the blood, sweat and the grit of Pat Chambers. Coach Chambers dug that line with his own hands, inch by inch, and with dirt remaining beneath his fingernails, he welcomed what was to be the bright future for his program.
During the freshman season for Carr, Stevens and Watkins the learning curve was steep. Consistency was an issue, and though the trio clearly had talent and promise, their time had not yet come. In 2016-17 the Lions lost four conference games by three or fewer points and in addition to that, two games in overtime were lost. The team was young, but it was close to turning a corner.
This past season the team finally turned that corner, a turn that lasted half of a decade. It was beginning to feel that program’s path was on an oval; perpetually looking for the end to the long, winding corner that separates winning programs from the losers. Going back to January 20, there seemed to be little to be optimistic for the 2017-18 squad. Coming off a very disappointing loss to Northwestern, and with a record of 3-5 in the Big Ten, many fans were ready to write off the season. Sportswriters were nearly in unison with their expert opinions; the team would flounder to a losing record and Pat Chambers would be fired.
The team went on a run that likely saved Pat Chambers’ job, playing its way to within one win of making the NCAA tournament, even without the help of Mike Watkins in the final few games. A 26-13 final record, 9-9 in B1G regular-season play, and an NIT championship has brought a new optimism to the program and its fans. Even the media has a little skip in their step when writing about the team’s future. The days of the dark cloud following the team during the long off-season may be gone for a while.
With the loss of Tony Carr to the NBA after just two seasons, there are some rather large shoes to fill. When looking back to where the program was three years ago, that uncertainty is far less scary. The team has depth that it has not had in decades. There is reason to believe that next year will be even better than 2017-18 for Pat Chambers and his team. For the first time in recent memory, there is cause to be thankful and optimistic for the trajectory that the program is on.
Hockey- Three years ago to this day the Penn State hockey team was facing an off-season full of uncertainty. Casey Bailey, the first player in Penn State hockey to reach the NHL, left following his junior season the previous year. Both goalies, Eamon McAdam and Matthew Skoff left the team the following year. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year or two for the program.
Instead Guy Gadowsky and his rising program has made the NCAA tournament for the past two seasons. While it appeared almost impossible to replace players such as Bailey, then McAdam and Skoff, that is exactly what happened. Peyton Jones stepped in at goalie as a freshman and led the team to its first Big Ten Championship. Denis Smirnov led the incoming freshman class of skaters to national prominence; it was not a case of the program needing to rebuild, it was able to reload.
Now two years later, the young group of players that was brought in to fill the shoes of departed key players are set to lead the team as upperclassmen. The future looks brighter than the past, as the talent-level on the roster continues to improve.
To think of where the program was three years ago, still trying to gain legitimacy, and to see where it is now, one of the hottest programs in the sport, is amazing. Many established programs would like to be where Guy Gadowsky has been able to take his team. We should all be thankful that there is an NCAA tournament-contending program inhabiting the magnificent confines of the Pegula Ice Arena.