A Farewell To Remember
Nov. 20, 2000
EASTON, Pa. (www.lafayette.edu) - It all comes down to this day. One last game on Fisher Field, one last time in a Leopard uniform, one last shot at redemption against a team they have been unable to beat in four years. This is the day that the Lafayette seniors have been anticipating since the end of last season while knew they couldn't overlook their other opponents. But this is a day they want to make last forever.
Lafayette - Lehigh. One of the most storied rivalries in college football and on this day, the 136th meeting between the two programs, it is the epitome of that competition. For most of the 14 seniors on this year's Lafayette team, it will be the last game of their football careers. Many have played the game since grade school and most can't remember a time when they weren't on the gridiron.
"I think the day itself means more to me because it will be the last game of my football career and I've been playing the game for the past 15 years of my life," said senior defensive lineman Shawn Reilly. "I want to close out my career in front of my family and friends with a win. That's how I want to remember my last football game."
And memorable it will be for these seniors. The group has gone through more in four years than any class of athletes should have to go through. A serious threat on the very existence of the Lafayette football program, a changing of the guard when Frank Tavani took over as head coach for Bill Russo and disheartening losing seasons that include an 0-3 record against Lehigh have made this group a close-knit unit which sticks together though adversity and criticism.
"It is tremendously important for us to beat Lehigh," said senior fullback Ryan Mayo. "I don't want to be in one of the classes to graduate without beating Lehigh. Right now I'm 0-3 and I don't want to go winless against them."
Senior split end and co-captain Phil Yarberough is eager to erase the memory of Lafayette's 14-12 heartbreaking loss at Goodman Stadium last season, a game he wanted desperately to win for the seniors on last year's team. "We came so close last year, and to see the look on the seniors' faces after we lost that one was hard. I wanted to win that game for them. I saw what they had to go through and I don't want to feel that, especially with it being our last game of the season and playing in front of our home crowd. I don't want to walk away with that look on my face."
"Last year's game against Lehigh was the toughest of my career. I broke my wrist the game before and hurt my ankle early in the Lehigh contest," said senior defensive back Jeremy Beamon. "It was hard to stand on the sidelines and not be able to go out and help my team in that game. But this year it will be different. This time I'll be out there playing with all I have in me for 60 minutes of football. I'll be ready to play."
The Lehigh game is the group's last chance, in their minds, to make as big of an impression on the scoreboard and history books that it has on the Lafayette family. This group of seniors wants the win against the Mountain Hawks more than anyone outside the program can understand. And the fact that Lehigh is undefeated and ranked eighth in the nation this season just makes the seniors more determined and focused on leading their younger teammates into a battle that the freshmen haven't fully grasped the importance of yet.
"I don't think the freshmen know the significance or the meaning of this game to everyone at Lafayette and Lehigh," commented senior linebacker Rachaud Evans. "But once they step out on that field, they'll be able to feel it. That emotion and adrenaline, it just runs through your veins.
"Lafayette-Lehigh is always a game no matter what the records are," said senior outside linebacker Mark Ravalico. "Maybe we're the big underdogs but maybe then we'll catch them off guard, catch them sleeping. We know we're up for playing with Lehigh. We know we can make it a good game and we know we can beat them."
Those Leopards with local ties have a better understanding of what this game means. The 10 Lafayette players from the Lehigh Valley know that the outcome of this game determines bragging rights in the area. Mike Palos and Brian Gregorek both hail from Bethlehem Catholic, Lehigh turf in the eyes of the locals, but opted for College Hill over the Mountain Hawks' nest.
Senior tight end Mike Palos said, "This is a huge game for me since I grew up in Bethlehem. I've been going to these games (Lafayette-Lehigh) since I was three or four years old so I know what it's all about. A win here would give us the upper-hand and we (the seniors) have been talking about this game since day one with the younger guys so they know how important it is to us that everyone steps up."
The game means a bit more to senior Brian Gregorek, the senior linebacker who has been forced to sit out three games this season with a shoulder injury. This game pits Gregorek against his younger brother, Mike, a freshman defensive end for Lehigh. The Gregorek family and friends will be in the stands in support of the matchup but Brian is the older, more experienced player who has a better understanding of the importance of the game.
"It will definitely be an emotional game, especially with Mike on the other side and all of our family and friends in the crowd," he said. "It should be a good competitive game and I know we can give them a run for their money. It's sad to see all of us (seniors) finish our careers but all good things come to an end and this Lehigh game has probably been in the back of all of our minds for a long time."
This Lehigh game has been in the back of everyone's mind at Lafayette since the last meeting on November 20, 1999. This year's seniors knew they would be facing the Moutain Hawks to close out their season, and careers, long before pre-season polls or media guides came out favoring Lehigh in the contest.
Lehigh is an unspoken word in the Lafayette program. Most Leopards can't even bring themselves to say the name of their opponent from the next town over without their muscles tensing up and their faces losing all hints of a smile. Often, Lehigh is referred to as "that team" and its players as "them" or "those guys." The feelings of frustration and competitiveness are just too intense.
"For a lot of us seniors I think this game will be the culmination of our four years here at Lafayette," said senior linebacker Tim Case. "We have yet to beat that program in my time here and with those guys having such a good year, I think if we come out and beat them, even by one point...it will be the best victory for all of us. We do not want to give them the satisfaction of another win."
"I think we'd only be the second class at Lafayette to graduate without beating them," said senior defensive back Bryant Ibekwe. "We did not come here to go through as much as we did just to be remembered for losing to that team. I want no part in that history."
The seniors sat quietly, ignoring the critics who haven't given them a chance against the dominating Lehigh team. They sat patiently, studying the films, reading the scouting reports and reviewing the basics of the game. They waited for their chance to prove the critics wrong and redeem themselves on their home field in their last game as Leopards.
"We want the chance to de-thrown them on our field and throw away all of the frustration and obstacles of the past four years with a victory," said senior tailback Andy Ficzko. "We always make our most unified effort as a team when we play Lehigh. We throw out the records and polls, the stats and the expectations and we go out there and play them with heart."
They watched and they waited as the anticipation grew. Ever so careful not to scare their younger teammates with the pressure they felt weighing on their own shoulders -- a weight they have been carrying around for the past four years.
"Over the past three seasons I've grown a real strong feeling about this game at the end of my senior year," said defensive lineman and team co-captain Mike Levy. There was a long pause and the notoriously outspoken senior continued in a barely audible voice. "It's probably going to be the last game of our (the seniors') careers, so we want to end it on a winning note with conviction. The fact that a loss in a game that ends it all would come at the hands of Lehigh...that would just hurt."
One last time in a Lafayette uniform, one last time on Fisher Field in front of the home crowd. But more importantly, one last shot at Lehigh and redemption. You can bet the Lafayette seniors will lead their team into the battle with their heads held high. And you can bet the 2000 Lafayette-Lehigh game will be something to remember.
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