Greetings from the 400 acres set apart!
Over the last several weeks we wrapped up all of our athletics competition for the year, we bid adieu to yet another outstanding senior class, and we welcomed back hundreds of familiar faces during a fun Reunion Weekend. It's June, which means the weather is usually terrific here in Lewisburg, and it's also a great time to both reflect on a terrific, and at times electrifying, athletics season here at Bucknell, while also planning ahead for the 2017-18 season, which is already right around the corner.
We just wrapped up an academic year in which our Bison varsity athletics teams captured seven conference championships. We have 27 varsity sports, so to earn championships in more than a quarter of them is quite an accomplishment!
The men's and women's basketball teams both captured thrilling Patriot League titles just a few days apart in front of huge crowds right here at Sojka Pavilion. It was as exciting a week of basketball action as we have ever had at Bucknell. Women's soccer and men's water polo won titles in the fall, giving us four teams that earned the right to experience NCAA Tournament play.
One of the highlights of the recently completed spring season was coach Kevin Donner's women's outdoor track & field team winning yet another Patriot League championship. In fact, the Bison women swept the cross country, indoor track & field, and outdoor track & field titles this year, marking our seventh “Triple Crown” since joining the Patriot League in 1990-91 and first since 2010. Led by some of the finest distance runners in school history – remember, Bucknell went 1-2-3-4 in a blowout cross country victory – this was a remarkably balanced and talented group. And congrats to Coach Donner, who earned Patriot League Coach of the Year honors in all three seasons.
The Bison men's track & field squad also had a strong outdoor championship meet, finishing in fourth place while earning two major awards. William Melchionni was the Patriot League Track Athlete of the Meet and Nicholas Lombardo the Field Athlete of the Meet. Lombardo won the same award at the indoor championships, making him the first Bison to earn an MVP honor in the same indoor/outdoor season since Ron Hess in 1999. He was also one of nine Bison student-athletes to qualify for the NCAA East Preliminary Meet in Lexington, Kentucky.
Another spring highlight was the incredible pitching performances by our baseball team in the Patriot League Tournament semifinal round at Navy. First, Connor Van Hoose tossed a complete-game gem in a 4-1 win in the opener of the best-of-three series, and then lefty Mike Castellani spun a 5-0 shutout in game two to give the Bison the series sweep over the No. 1 seed. In the championship series at Holy Cross, we dropped a couple of nailbiters, 4-3 and 11-7 (11 innings). Centerfielder Brett Smith, who was one of 10 national finalists for the Senior CLASS Award, hit a dramatic, game-tying three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings in game two, but Holy Cross scored four times in the top of the 11th to earn its first Patriot League title. The Crusaders went on to take a game from Nebraska in the NCAA Regionals in Corvallis, Oregon.
For the second year in a row, the Bison women's lacrosse team produced a winning season and qualified for the Patriot League Tournament. The 2016 team was one of the most improved in the country, winning 10 games on the heels of a two-win season in 2015. This year's squad backed it up with nine more wins, including the first victory over Colgate since 2003.
Following the season, head coach Randall Swope announced that she would be stepping down to pursue other professional opportunities. After several years of struggles, Randall had overseen an ascent in the league standings over the past two seasons. Patriot League women's lacrosse features two national-caliber teams in Loyola and Navy (which advanced all the way to the Final Four this year), but we were competitive against both of those squads on the road this spring. The team's future looks bright, and now we are working to identify our next head coach. In the meantime, I would like to thank Randall for all of her hard work during her eight seasons at Bucknell.
At the end of the year, we finished second to Navy in a tight race for the Patriot League Presidents' Cup. Bucknell finished five points behind the Midshipmen, and only about 20 points separated first-place Navy from fifth-place Army West Point in the final standings.
Every program in the Patriot League is working hard to improve their performances across the board. It's truly a league where if you are standing still, you are losing ground. Holy Cross, Loyola, Colgate, and Lafayette – the schools that placed sixth through ninth in the Presidents' Cup standings – either are currently building or recently finished major athletics facilities construction. At Bucknell, where we have won 18 of the 27 Presidents' Cups and still boast a wonderful array of facilities ourselves, we must keep moving forward. We have some exciting new projects coming along this summer (see below), and most importantly, we have an incredibly dedicated array of coaches and staff, who work tirelessly to ensure a positive experience for our 700-plus student-athletes.
As we reach the end of another year, I would also like to give another mention to our outstanding Bucknell Athletics operations and events management team. This hard-working group began the year by seeing the new Graham Wrestling Center come online and in full use, and then they successfully navigated a whirlwind year in which our facilities were utilized and showcased like never before. We hosted numerous championship events, and dozens more that were televised nationally, locally or online via the Patriot League Network. In each instance, our facilities looked great and proved to be terrific host sites for competition that brought in many spectators from outside our local community. The reviews were almost unanimously positive.
Our staffing model requires our operations team to wear many different hats throughout the year, and teamwork is the only way to pull off hosting five major championship events in the span of about a month, like we did in February and March with the Patriot League Swimming & Diving Championships, Patriot League Men's Basketball Tournament, Patriot League Women's Basketball Tournament, EIWA Wrestling Championships and PIAA Swimming & Diving Championships. Kudos again to our outstanding staff!
This was also an exciting year for Bison Athletics in the area of leadership development. We kicked off the 2016-17 academic year with the announcement of the rebranding of the Bucknell Athletics Leadership Institute, and we welcomed Lauren Wicklund as the first full-time director of our comprehensive leadership program. Lauren oversaw many positive enhancements to the Leadership Institute in her first year, and much more is planned for next year as well. Leadership Institute programming will now reach every first-year student-athlete early in their Bucknell careers, assisting with the transition to college and setting the stage for leadership principles that will be explored moving forward. There will also be more robust programming for coaches and staff, and additional opportunities for coaches and staff to work with a wide spectrum of student-athletes.
I am very pleased that Bucknell Athletics will be continuing our partnership with Learfield for the foreseeable future. Learfield's local team, Bison Sports Properties, will continue to manage our corporate sponsorships and multimedia rights through at least 2026. BSP, headed by general manager Mike Trudnak, has made great strides in recent years. Not only do corporate partnerships provide some additional revenue opportunities, but they also strengthen our ties to the local community. It is important to us to see local businesses thrive, and we are grateful that they want to align their brands with Bison Athletics.
As mentioned above, summertime is typically a busy period of facility construction, enhancements, and even routine maintenance. We have some very exciting plans in store for this summer, most notably at Depew Field (baseball) and Becker Field (softball).
Around the first of August, we will begin construction on chair-back grandstands and pressbox space at both venues. As you might recall, in recent years, new playing surfaces, fencing systems, dugouts, bullpens and scoreboards were installed. Now, this significant phase will finally give a true “stadium” feel for our many baseball and softball fans. We expect the grandstands to be completed and operational by the start of next season.
If you have wandered over toward Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium recently, you might have noticed quite a bit of activity in that area. The stadium track is currently being replaced, we are doing a renovation of the current pressbox, which had fallen into a bit of disrepair after several decades of use, and brand new lockers are being installed in the Bucknell locker room.
Inside the Kenneth Langone Athletics and Recreation Center, we are currently refurbishing Zeller Lounge, which overlooks Gerhard Fieldhouse. The renovation will open up Zeller Lounge and better incorporate it with the adjacent open seating area as well as the under-utilized outdoor rooftop patio space nearby. When completed later this summer, we will have a beautiful, useful gathering and study space for student-athletes and staff.
Over at Sojka Pavilion, plans are in progress for a second high-definition video board to match the well-received board that was installed prior to last basketball season. We are also taking a look at the Green Room on the floor level of Sojka Pavilion, with plans to make that space more adaptable for team meetings, film study, etc.
Of course, none of our future planning would be possible without the backing of our loyal donors. Your financial support is the lifeblood of Bison Athletics. Fundraising is not just for extras here. Monies raised by the Bison Club goes directly toward the operating budget of each of our varsity teams.
Back in March, we witnessed a remarkable outpouring of Bison spirit from 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.
I am also very pleased that for the seventh consecutive year, 100 percent of our senior student-athletes – 148-for-148 -- participated in the Senior Gift Drive. Kudos to athletics development manager Kyle Smith for his good work with the campaign, and sincere thanks to this inspiring senior class for all of their efforts in support of the Orange & Blue over the last four years.
There are a few days remaining in the fiscal year, and the Bison Club is closing in on its $2.5 million fundraising goal for 2016-17. If you have not had an opportunity to make a gift yet this year, or would like to make an additional gift, you can give online HERE or contact Todd Newcomb in the Bison Club office at 570-577-1771.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the legendary Tommy Thompson, who passed away on Sunday evening. Tommy was a true legend at Bucknell, both as a multi-sport student-athlete and a coach in four different sports. No individual has ever participated in as many Bucknell sporting events as Tommy, and when he retired as golf coach in 2001, his all-time victory count was at a remarkable 1,003. Even greater was Tommy's smile and the friendship that he provided to so many of us. Our thoughts and prayers are with Robynn, Jenny, Todd, and the entire Thompson family.
The new year officially gets underway on Friday, Aug. 18, when the Patriot League champion women's soccer team hosts national-power Syracuse at Emmitt Field. The first football game is slated for Sept. 2 vs. Marist at Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium. Be sure to check BucknellBison.com for all of our 2017-18 schedules as they are finalized in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, I hope you and yours enjoy a safe, restful and relaxing summer. Go Bison!
Director of Athletics & Recreation