A spring scrimmage is hardly cause for pomp and circumstance, but Lawrence A. Wien Stadium was rife with celebration. Alumni and supporters of the football program crowded the stands, arranged shoulder to shoulder within the confines of the centerfield seating, all angling for the best view. Wide receivers ran jump ball drills, redshirted quarterbacks practiced deep-throws, and stunted punts fell to kick returner after kick returner. All expected, all less than consequential.
Yet somehow this tedium felt just as significant as anything else that has taken place for this program in quite some time. For the first time in 20 years, football is coming off of a season in which it won eight out of ten games. And for the first time in 20 years, that success looks sustainable.
The Lions held their final practice of the spring April 21, when alumni and fans filled the stands at Wien Stadium and eagerly cheered on a young Columbia team as it worked through various drills before eventually engaging in a full-on scrimmage.
The goal of the day was twofold: to apply some pressure to the team prior to the several-month hiatus, and to evaluate player development going into the 2018 season.
The Lions are coming off of their best season since 1996. The team started off the 2017 season by winning six games in a row and finished the season 8-2 overall and 5-2 in Ivy League play. But now, unlike previous years, this success is expected to continue.
Head coach Al Bagnoli, who led Penn to nine Ancient Eight titles in 22 seasons in Philadelphia, naturally, will hope that Columbia can replicate its success from a season ago, as it hopes to win just its second-ever Ivy title, 57 years after its sole title in 1961.
As is to be expected, the spring was largely a growth period for Bagnoli’s young team. This started with electing new captains for the 2018 season.
Seniors Landon Baty and Markham Paukune, who forewent attending class and graduating this semester in order to take advantage of their fifth year of NCAA eligibility, according to a Columbia Athletics spokesperson, were elected as captains. Alongside them was junior wide receiver Kyle Castner, who similarly accrued an extra year of eligibility, and rising senior defensive lineman Mike Hinton, who will both act as captains for the first time.
Baty and Hinton will be representing the team’s defense while Castner and Paukune will lead the offense. Bagnoli expressed confidence that the newly appointed leadership will help keep the team steady both going into and throughout next season.
When asked what the team needed to focus on going into next year, Castner said that it was crucial to maintain perspective in light of the team’s recent success.
“What we talk about in the meeting room is that they know nothing but success and a lot of the older guys know where we came from and we have to keep that in mind as we push forward,” Castner said. “This isn’t all gonna be easy, obviously, and we need to keep grinding like we do every day.”
Bagnoli echoed a similar perspective. Despite the team’s incredible success last season, it remains important to recognize the team’s room for growth, as well as the necessary steps it must take in order to sustain the same heightened level of play.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Bagnoli said. “For the most part, we’ve grown as a team. The young kids have taken that next step. Now hopefully this will be a really smooth transition going into pre-season camp. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’re still a team in flux and we’ll continue to work at it.”
One of the key decisions that Bagnoli and offensive coordinator Mark Fabish will be forced to make going into next year is what to do at the quarterback position. The team graduated senior quarterback Anders Hill, who set numerous records in his final season in Morningside Heights, and will look to one of its two younger quarterbacks, Josh Bean and Dillon Davis, who will both be sophomores in the fall, to take Hill’s place as starter.
Bagnoli framed it as a quarterback competition, during which time he will be evaluating the duo’s performance and determining which player is a better fit in the current iteration of the team’s offensive scheme.
“We’ll have 29 practices to totally figure it out,” Bagnoli said. “It’s been good for those guys to get in there. It’s been good to put them in front of the team. It’s been good to put them under some stress. We’ll evaluate it, but they’re talented kids. You start off with that.”
Despite the divisive connotations of an intra-team competition, both Bean and Davis shared a similarly positive attitude towards the whole process. Both claim that the end goal is for mutual improvement, regardless of who is chosen to be the team’s starter in the fall.
“Obviously, we’ve been competing, making each other better. But it’s more just as a team we’ve gotta get better,” Bean said. “I think this battle is making us all better and that’s really what it’s all about.”
The team’s offense averaged a considerable 23.9 points per game last year, so it will be important for Bagnoli and Fabish to keep production production stable next season.
Overall, the team is at a crucial transition point, making the move toward a younger, less experienced core while trying to retain the positive habits that it has developed thus far during Bagnoli’s tenure as head coach.
“We’re tweaking a lot of things and we’ll look at it and continue to make adjustments,” Bagnoli said. “There were enough bright spots to build something and enough mistakes to yell at them so that’s exactly where you want to be.”
Football opens the 2018 season on September 15, as it will travel to New Britain, Connecticut to take on Central Connecticut State.