Greetings from the 400 acres set apart!
This is a bittersweet edition of “From the AD’s Desk”, as it will be my final communique as Bucknell’s director of athletics & recreation. I will have some parting thoughts in a moment, but first, as has become a tradition around the holiday period, a few words of thanks and congratulations following another very successful fall season.
We captured two Patriot League titles in the fall, with both women’s cross country and women’s soccer repeating as league champions. Kevin Donner’s cross country squad won the Patriot League crown for the third year in a row and for the 11th time in the 28-year history of the league. Senior Christine Bendzinski continued to add to her incredible resume by winning the meet for the second year in a row, and then after a fourth-place finish in a field of 195 competitors at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional, she became the 12th Bison runner to qualify for the NCAA Championships.
Challenged by a very difficult non-conference schedule, coach Kelly Cook’s women’s soccer team went on to finish 7-2 in Patriot League play, and as the No. 2 seed knocked off No. 3 Boston University and No. 1 Navy to win the Patriot League Tournament. Senior Kendall Ham cemented her status as one of the best forwards ever to play at Bucknell when she recorded a hat trick – all in the first 21 minutes of the game – in the 3-2 win over Navy in the championship match. Bucknell went on to play in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in team history, falling 3-0 to No. 2 seed West Virginia, which was the national runner-up in 2016.
There were plenty of other outstanding performances this fall. Field hockey coach Jeremy Cook tested his team by playing six top-25 opponents this season, and the Bison made it all the way to the Patriot League championship game. They took down traditional league power American in penalty strokes in the semifinals, then lost a hard-fought 2-1 game to top-seeded Boston University in the final.
The Bison volleyball team nearly tripled its win total from the previous season, going from five wins to a 14-14 season and an 8-8 record in Patriot League play.
Men’s soccer coach Brendan Nash continues to get the most out of his team. His squad was hit hard by graduation and injuries, and despite being picked to finish sixth in the preseason poll, ended up as the No. 3 seed in the Patriot League Tournament. The Bison got hot at the right time, finishing the regular season with three wins and a draw in the final four games. That earned a Patriot League Tournament home game, but unfortunately we ran into another peaking side in Colgate, which squeaked out a 1-0 win and then went on to not only win the PL title, but advance all the way to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.
Men’s water polo had another strong season, finishing 19-12 overall and a perfect 10-0 in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference. The Bison, who were ranked 16th nationally, were upset by Wagner in the MAWPC Tournament semifinals, and the team went on to finish in third place.
Men’s cross country had a young squad this fall, although it was senior Will Bordash leading the squad with a seventh-place finish at the Patriot League Championship. The Bison finished fifth in the conference meet, and then took eighth out of 26 teams at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional.
And the football team closed out an up-and-down season with a 5-6 record. There were some memorable moments this year. John Burdick’s walk-off 46-yard field goal on the final play against Sacred Heart and Colin Jonov’s 95-yard overtime interception return for the winning touchdown at Lafayette immediately come to mind. The Bison again had one of the top defenses in the Patriot League, led by PL Defensive Player of the Year Abdullah Anderson.
At the end of the fall season, Bucknell will have the lead in the Presidents’ Cup race with 43.25 points. Lehigh will be in second with 40, followed by Navy with 35.5 and Boston University with 35. Bucknell also leads in the chase for the Women’s Cup with 28.75 points, with Navy second at 25.5.
As has been the case throughout recent history, we expect the Presidents’ Cup race to come right down to the final few championships in the spring.
As for the winter sports, we are already off and running in basketball, swimming & diving and wrestling, and the indoor track & field team is underway as well having competed successfully in our first home meet.
The men’s basketball squad has a historically difficult schedule during the non-conference portion of the season. We have already played road games against the likes of Arkansas, North Carolina and Maryland, and things won’t get much easier over the next few weeks. Coach Nathan Davis has a few injuries to navigate as well, but we are all confident that these challenges will pay dividends in March, when the team looks to win another Patriot League title.
The women’s basketball team heads into the final exam break with a four-game winning streak and a 6-3 record. Aaron Roussell’s team graduated an outstanding senior class after winning the Patriot League championship a year ago, but the squad is once again playing exciting basketball and will be fun to watch as the season progresses.
Earlier this fall, the NCAA released its latest round of student-athlete graduation data, and once again Bucknell ranks right near the very top. According to the Department of Education’s graduation rate metric, Bucknell has a four-year rolling average of 90 percent. That is the fourth-highest figure in the country this year, behind only Stanford, Notre Dame and Northwestern.
The NCAA also has its own formula – Graduation Success Rate (GSR) – which differs from the federal rate in that it gives credit for transfer students who do graduate, and does not penalize schools for losing transfers who leave in good academic standing. Bucknell’s GSR is an outstanding 95%.
As I reflect on my time at Bucknell, one of the lasting impressions that will stand out is the consistent, year-in-and-year-out high caliber of our student-athletes as well as just how well-rounded they are. Many of our best competitors are also our brightest students. Earlier I mentioned Christine Bendzinski from women’s cross country and Kendall Ham from women’s soccer. These were two postseason heroes who led their teams to championships. Both will very likely end up in the Bucknell Athletics Hall of Fame someday. But did you also know that Christine and Kendall were their sports’ respective Scholar-Athlete of the Year? Christine is a double major in cell biology and biochemistry. Kendall majors in biology.
Men’s basketball’s Zach Thomas, one of the top scorers in the country right now, is a biomedical engineering major. So is Alex Pechin of the football team, who was also his sport’s Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year after ranking third nationally in punting average with a school-record 45.1 yards per kick.
The list of high-achievers goes on and on. Bucknell student-athletes continually disprove the notion that excellence in both athletics and academics are mutually exclusive, and that you can’t be a Division I athlete and study whatever academic discipline interests you. They challenge themselves with difficult majors, senior projects, competitive internships, Bucknell Athletics Leadership Institute mentoring, and so much more. And they also help their teams compete for championships.
As you might have heard, on Jan. 1, I will be starting my new position as Vice President and Director of Athletics at the University of Richmond. While I am excited to begin this new chapter in my career, please know that my nearly 18 years at Bucknell will never be forgotten. There have certainly been ups and downs, both personally and professionally, during my time in Lewisburg, but this is an incredibly special place.
It's easy to reflect on the progress that has been made over the last 18 years. We can just look around at all of the new facilities construction, such as the Kenneth Langone Athletics & Recreation Center, Holmes Stadium, Becker & Depew Fields, the Graham Wrestling Center, the Bachman Golf Center, etc.
We can watch our current student-athletes taking part in the Bucknell Athletics Leadership Institute, grabbing a snack at the BisonFuel station, or participating in SAAC or “Orange & Blue Goes Green” sustainability initiatives.
We can measure the fruits of our strategic reorganization in areas such as the Bison Club/fundraising, admissions and financial aid, NCAA compliance, corporate sponsorships, sports medicine, imaging & branding as well as fitness/recreation.
At the heart of all of this evolution is the simple notion that it is the first responsibility of the AD to provide the best four-year undergraduate experience possible for our more than 700 varsity student-athletes. Their education and welfare has been the No. 1 priority in every decision that has been made in the last 18 years.
On a personal level, it is extremely rewarding to look back on all of that progress, but what I will remember the most about Bucknell are the people. It’s become a bit of cliché around here that “the people make the place.” But it is so very true.
I have met Bucknellians all over the world who carry immense pride in their alma mater. You can feel it when you walk around campus. Students are proud to wear the Orange & Blue. They are here to challenge themselves to be as successful as possible.
So yes, my fondest memories of Bucknell will be the people. Some of them are no longer with us, such as Art Gulden, Tom Gadd, Tommy Thompson, Gene Depew, and Charlie Pollock. So many others – the list is too long to name them all here – from student-athletes to coaches to administrative colleagues, will be lifelong friends. The 280 miles between Lewisburg and Richmond could never outdistance those special relationships.
I sincerely hope that you will continue to be a loyal supporter of Bucknell and Bison Athletics. Like every college and university in America, Bucknell will always have its financial challenges. Your contributions to the Bison Club are essential to continuing the advancement of this great athletics program.
The men and women who so proudly wear the Orange & Blue deserve your continued support. Our Bison coaches and athletics staff members are truly thankful for all of the support that Bucknell provides our programs, and we are committed to providing Bucknell's student-athletes with the best NCAA Division I competitive opportunities and experiences possible. After all, providing successful opportunities to Bucknell students is the focus of our mission, and this great University continues to be counted among the nation’s elite programs in supporting and producing successful scholar-athletes.
It has truly been an honor to serve as their athletics director. I am extremely thankful to have had the privilege these past 18 years of leading a department that is comprised of some of the most dedicated and hardest working coaches, staff and student-athletes in the country. I continue to be impressed by the feats that our Bison student-athletes are able to achieve, both on and off the field.
Again, thank you for your generous and loyal support of Bucknell and Bison athletics these past 18 years,and best wishes for continued success in the future!
One final time … GO BISON!
All the best,