Greetings from the 400 acres set apart!
March is always one of the most hectic and exciting months in college athletics, and this year it was especially true here at Bucknell. I can’t think of a time during my tenure at Bucknell where there were more championship events taking place on campus in such a short period of time.
A combination of first-class facilities and first-place teams led to a stretch where we had a championship event in either Sojka Pavilion or Kinney Natatorium on 12 out of 18 days. With the Bison men’s and women’s basketball teams both winning regular-season titles, that meant both teams earned home-court advantage all the way through the Patriot League Tournament. And at the end of what was just an incredible week of basketball, both teams cut down the Sojka nets and raised championship trophies.
After winning the regular-season title for the sixth time in the last seven years – a feat that is only matched by Kansas and Belmont -- Nathan Davis’ men’s team knocked off arch-rival Lehigh in the Patriot League final. In front of a standing-room-only crowd that had Sojka Pavilion rocking, the Bison played a near-perfect second half and walked off with a satisfying 81-65 win over the Mountain Hawks.
Eight days later it was off to Buffalo for our seventh NCAA Tournament appearance. The Bison put up a great fight against an athletic West Virginia team known for its high-pressure defense, but we fell just a few plays short in an 86-80 defeat.
The men’s basketball team’s championship-game victory over Lehigh came on a Wednesday night, and then just two days later the women hosted a pair of Patriot League Tournament semifinal games. Aaron Roussell’s squad started out the evening with a 12-point victory over American, and then we had a fun Army-Navy matchup in the nightcap, which was won by the Mids on a 3-point buzzer-beater. Navy’s long-distance shooters were on fire again in Sunday’s final. They hit another one late in regulation to force overtime, but league MVP Claire DeBoer (30 points, 10 rebounds!) and the Bison would not be denied. They showed great poise under pressure in the overtime period and prevailed 79-71 for the program’s third league championship, and the first won on our home court.
The Bison earned a No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but unfortunately we were matched up with a Maryland team that slipped to a No. 3 seed despite a 30-2 record and Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles. The Terrapins showed why they were considered a national championship contender in their win over the Bison, but the game did not take away from what was a special season for a team that overcame plenty of adversity along the way.
Whenever our basketball teams have the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament – which is one of the biggest stages in all of college sports – I am always so impressed by the manner in which our student-athletes carry themselves on and off the court. I received numerous compliments in both Buffalo and College Park about the class of our basketball programs, and to me that is just as meaningful as the victories.
Of course, the basketball games were not the only championship activities taking place in Sojka Pavilion in March. Intertwined within the hoops tournaments were two full days of wrestling at the EIWA Championships. The Bison grapplers turned in a strong performance, highlighted by a run to the finals by 197-pounder Tom Sleigh, where he dropped a heartbreaker in extra time. We sent four student-athletes to the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, and two – Tyler Smith and Victor Lopez – made it to the second day of the competition.
Sojka Pavilion is a terrific venue to stage the EIWA Championships. This is the second time that we have hosted it, and I know the league would like to come back. Again, we received numerous compliments from coaches, administrators and media about the success of the event. It also gave us a chance to show off the beautiful new Graham Wrestling Center, located adjacent to Sojka Pavilion.
When you factor in the Patriot League Swimming & Diving Championships in late February and the PIAA Swimming & Diving Championships held in Kinney Natatorium during Spring Break (and actually a little bit beyond that this year due to the March snowstorm), that is five major championship events that we hosted in a span of about a month. So much goes on behind the scenes to successfully stage these events. It literally takes an around-the-clock effort in order to host a Patriot League Tournament basketball game on a Thursday night, then have Sojka Pavilion flipped into full wrestling mode to start EIWAs on Friday morning. Then the same process happens in reverse when the wrestling wraps up on Saturday evening, with a nationally televised men’s basketball semifinal game scheduled for 2 p.m. on Sunday.
I’d like to take a moment to thank and recognize all the men and women on our staff who worked tirelessly to make these events a success, in particular Deputy AD Tim Pavlechko; associate AD for operations and events Chad Mason and his hard-working staff; associate AD for athletic communications Jon Terry and his staff; and assistant AD for aquatics Pam Armold and her team. So many individuals went above and beyond, it was truly a team effort!
With so much happening on campus, we can’t forget that another Bison team claimed yet another championship away from home this winter. Kevin Donner’s women’s indoor track & field team captured its 17th Patriot League crown in the 27-year history of the league. The Bison won six gold medals and scored points in every event en route to a 17-point victory over host Boston University. After winning the cross country title in the fall, we now have a chance to win the coveted “Triple Crown” at the Patriot League Outdoor Championships at Lehigh in May.
Including the three winter championships, we have now won six conference titles in 2016-17. One of those – men’s water polo – does not factor into the Patriot League Presidents’ Cup standings, but coming out of the winter season Bucknell has a 7.75-point lead over Navy in the Cup chase. We have won 18 of the 26 Presidents’ Cups, but this year we are trying to end Navy’s three-year run. There are 11 championships to be contested in the spring, so there are still plenty of points out there, and we will need a strong finish to hold off the Midshipmen.
Away from all of that competitive excitement, this has also a very productive few months in the areas of leadership and fundraising. On the leadership front, I want to give kudos to associate AD for leadership development Lauren Wicklund, who has done great work in her first year coordinating the Bucknell Athletics Leadership Institute.
Over the last several weeks, we have had two very successful athletics alumni career networking events, one in Philadelphia hosted by Bill Graham ‘63, and most recently in New York City hosted by Lucy and Mark Stitzer, who are the parents of former Bison men’s golf captain Schuyler Stitzer ’14. Our men’s lacrosse alumni also held a similar networking event in New York in January. These programs are beneficial on many levels. First and foremost, it gives our current student-athletes the chance to connect with alumni. They get the opportunity to meet those who came before them and discuss everything from career opportunities and advice to stories from their own playing days.
Secondly, but equally important, these events give our alumni an opportunity to stay engaged with Bison Athletics and their former teams. In eavesdropping on some of the conversations, it seems that our current student-athletes received almost as many questions from the alumni, which makes for great dialogue.
Speaking of interesting conversation, last month we welcomed two guests – Maj. Will Meddings and Professor Lloyd Clark – from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the United Kingdom. Sandhurst is a very similar military training institution to West Point, and it has recently launched the Centre for Army Leadership, an initiative that is designed to formalize leadership development and training in the UK. Maj. Meddings and Prof. Lloyd are touring U.S. colleges that have leadership programs, and it was a wonderful opportunity to spend a day with them and share ideas. Bucknell Athletics and the British Army obviously have very different missions, but the essence of leadership is still very similar in both pursuits.
For many years, the Department of Athletics has bestowed Alumni Achievement Awards to one alumnus and one alumna who have gone on to earn distinction in their professional careers. In past years, the Alumni Achievement Awards have been given out at either the Senior Awards Banquet or the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This year, we decided to make it a stand-alone event, and honor our award recipients in front of the members of the Bucknell Athletics Leadership Institute.
This year’s winners -- Ron Benjamin ’67 (football) and Daniela Faas ’04 (swimming) – offered helpful words of advice to our current student-athletes, and it was great to be able to recognize them in front of that group, and then again publicly at the men’s basketball game later that day. Congrats to Ron and Daniela!
For the fifth year in a row, the Bucknell Athletics Leadership Institute sent student-athletes to the U.S. Naval Academy Leadership Conference. This year Meghan Kovac (softball) and Ben Richard (football) had the opportunity to go to Annapolis and listen to experienced speakers and panelists from the military and private sector discuss topics related to the theme of “forging team spirit.”
While we’re talking about teamwork, what an incredible display of Bison spirit showed by our alumni, parents and friends in support of The Bison March for Excellence! Thanks to you, more than a half-million dollars were raised in just 24 hours during this one-day giving challenge. A total of 2,334 donors contributed gifts totaling $523,000 to Bison Athletics.
In recent years, Athletics played a prominent role in the university-wide Trustee Challenge, raising significant sums toward our annual fundraising goal. The Trustee Challenge was discontinued this year, but because the concept of a 24-hour drive has been so successful, we wanted to carry on the tradition as an Athletics-only event.
The inaugural Bison March for Excellence was a smashing success due in large part to the hard work of senior associate AD and Bison Club director Todd Newcomb, as well as athletics fundraisers Tom Harvey and Kyle Smith and many of their colleagues in Development and Alumni Relations. Our head coaches also did a tremendous job helping spread the word to their alumni groups.
Fundraising continues to be the lifeblood of Bison Athletics. Our university-provided budget only scratches the surface of what is needed to operate a successful Division I athletics program. Those six conference championships that we have won this year? They do not happen without your financial support.
Of course, our fundraising efforts are not merely limited to one 24-hour period. It is a year-round enterprise. If you have not made your annual gift to the Bison Club, please contact Todd Newcomb at 570-577-1771, or donate online HERE.
As another shining example of the fruits the financial support of our loyal alumni and friends, I am pleased to announced that in August we will be breaking ground on the final phase of the baseball and softball stadium renovation project! At long last we will be adding permanent grandstand and pressbox facilities at Depew Field and Becker Field. We have already installed new playing surfaces, scoreboards and brick dugouts/backstops, and now this final piece will help give us two of the premier diamonds in the region.
As the calendar flips from March to April, there is still plenty of excitement on tap. All of our spring sports are well into conference play, and before you know it, we’ll have more postseason action upon us.
We are also currently in the midst of spring football practice. The team is working hard and getting to know the two new additions to our coaching staff: offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta and linebackers coach Mike Weick.
Another new face on the sideline is Ian Wood, who recently joined us as associate AD for sports medicine. Ian spent the last five years as head athletic trainer at Colorado College. He has also been a part of the athletic training staff at Army West Point and Wisconsin, where he served as the Badgers’ head football athletic trainer, and for six years he was chief of sports medicine with the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program in Ft. Carson, Colorado. Please join me in welcoming Ian to the Bison Athletics family.
Later this month (Apr. 27-29), we will be glued to the NFL Draft waiting for Julie’n Davenport’s name to be called. Julie’n was a consensus All-American at left tackle this fall, he participated in both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine, and he is projected to become Bucknell’s first NFL Draft selection since Sam Havrilak in 1969. We wish Julie’n all the best as he pursues his dream of playing in the NFL.
After that lovely 20 inches of snow that blanked the Susquehanna Valley just as our wrestling and basketball teams were preparing to travel to their respective NCAA Tournaments, we have finally seen some signs of spring’s emergence. That means lots of outdoor action on campus, so I hope to see you at one of our venues cheering on the Bison!
Director of Athletics & Recreation