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Bagnoli Cautiously Optimistic in His Third Season

Al Bagnoli has seen enough football in 36 years as a head coach to know not to set the bar too high. So it was no surprise that he didn’t predict an Ivy League championship as he headed into his third season at Columbia.

A Columbia Lions football player kicks the football into the air.

Placekicker Oren Milstein ’20 made all but one attempt a year ago.

Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics

Bagnoli chose the phrase “cautiously optimistic” during an interview this past summer to describe the Lions’ prospects for the 2017 season, which began with a non-conference game against Wagner on September 16. Columbia started Ivy play on September 30 at Princeton, with Homecoming scheduled against Penn on October 14 at Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium.

“As we enter year three, we probably have more depth and more positional competition,” said Bagnoli, who won nine Ivy championships during his 23-year tenure at Penn and is one of the winningest coaches in NCAA Football Championship Subdivision history with a career record of 242–119. “We have a lot of returning kids with playing time under their belts and we’re optimistic about the progress made in the offseason with our strength and conditioning. For the first time we had an indoor practice facility where we can now practice year-round, which I thought was huge.”

A Columbia Lions football player prepares to throw the football.

Anders Hill ’18 passed for 284 yards and three touchdowns against Cornell.

Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics

Columbia compiled a 3–7 record last season, but five of its losses came by an average of just 4.8 points. Bagnoli has now had a chance to welcome two full recruiting classes and beef up a roster that as of September 1 listed 26 players weighing 270 lbs. or more. “Our players, when we inherited them, were tall and lean,” he said. “They weren’t as stout, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, as you would need them to be. We’ve addressed those issues.” Among the Lions’ veteran linemen are Bewley Wales ’18, Charlie Flores ’18, Tyler Schonewolf ’19 and Markham Paukune ’18 on offense and Lord Hyeamang ’18 and Dominic Perkovic ’18 on defense.

How much progress Columbia makes this season likely will depend on the play of quarterback Anders Hill ’18, who stepped into the starting job midway through last season. “He is unquestionably the leader of our offense,” said Bagnoli. “He’s a big, strong, physical kid who can make all the throws, and I think he can be a threat running the ball. We’re hopeful that he can continue his growth and optimistic that he can take the next step to be an elite player in this league.”

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Among Hill’s targets are a trio of wide receivers — Josh Wainwright ’20, Ronald Smith SEAS’20 and Christian Everett ’20. “The goal last year was to try to get some more explosive playmakers on the outside,” said Bagnoli. “Now I think we’re much more experienced at the skilled positions.”

Another key player for the Lions is placekicker Oren Milstein ’20, who was a unanimous All-Ivy First Team selection as a freshman after converting 12 of 13 field goal attempts and all 16 point after touchdown attempts. Milstein led the Lions in scoring last season with 52 points and kicked two gamewinning field goals.

Asked to describe the state of the program, Bagnoli said, “We’re doing the right things and we’re making progress. The attitude and culture of the program have significantly changed. The players have been awesome, they’ve worked really hard and they’ve bought into our vision of what we’re trying to do. Our whole goal was to make football enjoyable again. I think we’re on schedule.”