BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS BY LORI MESSERSMITH
READING – When you’ve sought something for 44 years, you’ll take it any way you can get it. And while there may be a sense of unfinished business surrounding the Lebanon Valley College football team, it’s nothing a playoff victory can’t erase.
On Saturday afternoon at Albright, the Flying Dutchmen dropped a 40-25 decision to the rival Lions in their regular season finale. The loss caused Lebanon Valley to share the Middle Atlantic Conference championship with Lycoming, its first since 1969.
Turnovers and big plays forced LVC to play from behind all day. A muffed punt and a pick-six allowed Albright to register a pair of touchdowns in 11 seconds early in the second period, as the Lions took a 20-7 lead they would never relinquish.
But despite the loss, 22nd-ranked Lebanon Valley, now 8-2 overall and 7-2 in the Middle Atlantic Conference, earned its first-ever berth in the 32-team NCAA Division Three tournament. The Flying Dutchmen gained the MAC’s automatic berth into the event courtesy of an earlier 14-7 win over Lycoming.
Albright improved to 7-3 on the year and 6-3 in the conference.
“We’re still champions,” said Lebanon Valley head coach Jim Monos. “We won a share of the MAC title. We wanted to win it out right. We’re disappointed, but we still did it. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. We’ll take the luck.
“They’re (the Lions) a good football team,” continued Monos. “They’re one of the best teams in the league. There’s three or four good teams in this league, and what happens is we wind up banging into each other.”
Lebanon Valley led once, 7-0 2:57 into the contest, when quarterback Ryan Murphy ran one in from 20 yards away. The score was set up by a Josh Borelli interception.
But Albright responded with a monster 21-play, 91-yard drive to tie the score at seven. Then the Lions parlayed the LVC turnovers into a 13-point advantage.
“Oh my gosh yes,” said Monos of the critical nature of the miscues. “It gave them field position, and they scored. There was no question we were going to win the football game. But they (the Lions) answered us.
“It’s not the way we wanted to back in,” added Monos. “We had the possibility of hosting a playoff game. Now we have to travel, if we get in.”
Lebanon Valley pulled to within 20-14, 55 seconds before the break when it marched 75 yards in 15 plays to get Austin Hartman’s four-yard plunge. But Albright used those 55 seconds to run 13 plays and get Dan Sobolewski’s 38-yard field goal, and a 23-14 cushion for the locker room.
“Give them a lot of credit,” said Monos. “They controlled the ball, they wore us down defensively, and we made uncharacteristic mistakes early in the game turning the ball over. And we didn’t make plays.
“We had a good week of practice,” Monos concluded. “Our kids were ready to play. But we were playing a good football team.”
An early second-half fumble by LVC led to the Lion touchdown that made it 30-14. Ty Hughes did the honors for Albright, but Lebanon Valley struck back on its very next snap, when quarterback Brian Murphy hit Jake Ziegler for a 75-yard touchdown on a fly pattern.
“Winning seven games in-a-row in the MAC is an accomplishment in itself,” said Monos. “And we beat three or four good football teams along the way.”
Trailing 37-22, Lebanon Valley really needed a touchdown late in the third quarter, but was forced to settle for a 23-yard Sean Fakete field goal. It would prove to the Flying Dutchmen’s last gasp, as two LVC fourth-quarter possessions netted zero points.
“They have 29 seniors. They’re an experienced team,” said Monos of the Lions. “I thought they did a nice job. They beat us fair and square. But I told our players, ‘We won the MAC championship.’ What happened here today is we lost control of our destiny.”
Albright rolled up 454 yards of total offense against LVC’s usually stingy defense. Lebanon Valley, on the other hand, accumulated 366 yards of offense, on 24 fewer plays and turned the ball over a total of four times.
Irving collected 105 yards on 18 carries.
“Everybody loves a winner,” said Monos of a visitor’s bleacher that out number the home crowd. “So everybody jumps on the band wagon. I’m really proud of this team.”