Friday, January 8, 2016

Four Classes

Marcellus Wiley

I have to admit I've been putting off writing this post for weeks, months, and maybe years.

I did so because it's just very hard to really judge recruiting classes, sometimes even 20 years after they graduate.

And when you're dealing with a program that has frequent coaching changes, it's often hard to give credit to the people and staff that actually recruited the most players in a given class.

But as we are in the height of recruiting season now with on-campus visits resuming this weekend, I thought I'd look at what I think are the four main contenders for the title of "Best Columbia Football Recruiting Class" in my lifetime.

Starting by chronological order, let's begin with the group of players that entered in 1992, (for reference hereinafter I call this the "Class of 1996," regardless of when each of the players actually did graduate from Columbia).

For this and the other three classes I want to consider, I list all the players who were either All Ivy, All Ivy contenders, or just key leaders on the field.


Marcellus Wiley
Mike Cavanaugh
John Harper
Jim Jim Jones
Ryan Ornellas
Will Payne
Chris Valvo
Mike Quinn
Jason Lill
Jim Lill
Craig Valentine
Erik Olson
Ralph Hudson
Matt Lenzen
Frank Congiusta

I know most of the players above aren't completely familiar to even longtime Columbia fans. But the big stars were Wiley, Cavanaugh, Harper, and Valentine. The just-below-star-level players were the Lill twins, Hudson, Valvo, and Ornellas. In practice, this was the group most responsible for Columbia's first winning season in 23 years in 1994. They also got the team off to a very strong 1995 start before the outstanding QB Cavanaugh went down with a career-ending broken leg at Princeton.

This group has a special place in my heart because of what they overcame historically. Columbia's sudden ascension to a contender in the Ivies really came out of nowhere. The most wins then-Head Coach Ray Tellier had earned in any of his six seasons at the helm prior to 1994 was three and the 1993 team was 2-8.

And of course the big name is Wiley, who remains the #1 best Columbia recruit and developed player of the last 50 years.

Rory Wilfork


Rory Wilfork
Randy Murff
Ryan Gabriele
Austin Milliken
Ray Gerena
David Ramirez
Dennis Lee
Mike Jennings
Charlie Bettinelli
Guy Poppe

Wilfork was one of the best players and best ambassadors for Columbia athletics in history. He was a truly feared force at linebacker and when he was playing with Wiley, the Lions had a defense that could win games all by itself.

Murff and Milliken were excellent linemen who made a huge difference for what was an offense that lacked a great QB after Cavanaugh went down. Ramirez was a great WR who opposing defenses feared.

But this is a smaller list of stars than the '96 group, and much of the magic of this class' best season was due to the fact that Wiley took 1995 off and was around to lead the team in the 8-2 season of 1996. But even as sophomores, enough of these players made a big enough impact on the historic 1994 breakthrough team for this group to be singled out in their own right.

Austin Knowlin


Austin Knowlin
M.A. Olawale
Lou Miller
Andy Shalbrack
Evan Sanford
Ray Rangel
Taylor Joseph
Justin Masorti
Jared Morine

Three of these players were probably the best Columbia has seen at their respective positions in 25 years. Knowlin at WR, Miller at DE, and Shalbrack at Safety. That fact alone makes this group made up of a mix of Norries Wilson and Bob Shoop recruits really stand out. Injuries and other misfortunes stole some added glory from this squad with only abbreviated careers for Rangel, Masorti, and even Olawale who really only started one full season's worth of games at QB. But this was the group most responsible for the 2009 season that was the best the Lions have had since 1996.

Alex Gross and friends


Alex Gross
Andrew Kennedy
Adam Mehrer
Calvin Otis
Matt Bashaw
Matt Moretto
Mike Stephens
Augie Williams
Dan Cohen
Leon Ivery
Nico Gutierrez
Mike Murphy
Ian Quirk
Marc Holloway

This was an all-Norries Wilson class and was clearly his best. Gross and Kennedy really stood out and losing both of them to graduation in May of 2011 was the biggest reason for the disastrous season that ensued that fall. Mehrer was an underrated top flight safety and was half of the best single play of the entire decade of the 2000's when he intercepted a Hail Mary Brown pass and lateraled it to Shalbrack for a spectacular TD in 2009. Otis was often banged up, but a great corner who played right away as a freshman. Moretto was an extremely smart player who was also effective when he was healthy. Stephens was a dynamic WR and Williams was the joyful spirit of a team that was briefly very much on the rise.

So which one of the above classes was the best? I think the quick answer is 1996 because of Wiley. But take him off the list and then I think I would very easily pick the 2011 crew even though they never put together a winning team.

Of course, you can't strip Wiley away from that 1996 class. And it was filled with just the right amount of stars and plugger guys playing way above their heads with extreme effort that they helped turn around a program that was circling the drain.

The good news is that even that 1996 class is not something that I think is too hard for Al Bagnoli and his staff to match or exceed. Bagnoli's name alone will attract players at or above most of the 1996 group in greater numbers. The key will be to grab one or two truly outstanding stars and then making sure they play that way on the field.


alawicius said...

Great piece, Jake, thanks for all those memories!


Marc Menendez said... love as part of the 96 crew that shook things up!! - Marc Menendez

Marc Menendez said...

Man, no love as part of the '96 crew that shook up the stagnant environment at CU! :)

- Marc Menendez

Anonymous said...

I wish I had saved all of the game programs when i was a kid seeing the team in the 70's. I just never thought much of it at the time :-(