Columbia football ended its losing streak last season, was competitive in nearly every game and improved dramatically in virtually all statistical categories. Now the Lions, in their second season under head coach Al Bagnoli, seek to continue their progress and take the next step up the Ivy League ladder.
Bagnoli, who won nine Ivy titles in 23 seasons at Penn and is the winningest coach in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, is not about to predict any championships but is cautiously optimistic. “We certainly feel comfortable we’re doing the right things,” he says. “It’s just taking those incremental steps and continuing to believe in what we’re doing, work hard, be smart in our approach and now try to figure a way to win some of these close games.”
MIKE McLAUGHLIN / COLUMBIA ATHLETICS
Anyone who has been around football as long as Bagnoli knows learning how to make the leap from being competitive to being a winner is a tough lesson.“We were within one possession [of winning] in five Ivy League games [last season], so we’ve just got to figure out how to close people out,” Bagnoli says.
Media members who cover the Ivy League are taking a wait-and-see attitude; the Lions were picked to finish seventh in the eight-team league in the annual preseason media poll, ahead of Cornell. Harvard edged Penn for the top spot.
Columbia begins Ivy competition by hosting Princeton on October 1, following non-league games against St. Francis (Pa.) and Georgetown. Other big games on the schedule include Bagnoli’s first return as a visiting coach to Penn on October 15 and the Home-coming game against Dartmouth on October 22. (For the latest information on the Home-coming festivities, go to Homecoming 2016.)
Columbia has two other Ivy League home games: a night game against Yale on October 28 and the annual Empire State Bowl against Cornell on November 12.
Key returning Columbia players who were cited by Bagnoli in the annual Ivy League coaches’ preseason media conference call include quarterbacks Skyler Mornhinweg ’17 and Anders Hill ’18; offensive linemen Charlie Flores ’19, Kendall Pace ’17 and Bewley Wales ’18; defensive linemen Dominic Perkovic ’18, Lord Hyeamang ’18 and Connor Heeb ’18; linebackers Gianmarco Rea ’17, Keith Brady ’17 and Christian Conway ’17; and defensive backs Jared Katz ’17, Cameron Roane ’18 and Brock Kenyon ’17.
Bagnoli is counting on better team depth, as 75 returning letter-winners will be bolstered by a recruiting class that was ranked No. 3 in the FCS by 247Sports.com. “It’s going to be a collection of 110 guys trying to get this thing turned around, as opposed to just the senior or junior class. We’re going to need some help from the younger kids,” he says.
Bagnoli also says the team made a concerted effort during the offseason to get stronger along the offensive and defensive lines. “We were way under strength and we didn’t have enough stoutness to hold up against the elite players in this league,” Bagnoli notes. “We were just not as explosive as we needed to be up front, so that was our No. 1 priority.”
The Lions are looking to build on a season in which they improved significantly, more so than the jump from 0–10 to 2–8 in win-loss record might indicate. They went from 556 yards rushing and 103 points scored in 2014 to 1,402 yards rushing and 143 points scored in 2015. Defensively, they went from allowing 2,534 yards rushing and 389 points in 2014 to 1,302 yards rushing and 198 points last year. “I think there’s been a change in the culture here,” Bagnoli says. “I think we have a little more confidence, a little more exuberance, a little more swagger than when we took over the program.”
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