Picked to finish seventh in the 2015-16 Atlantic 10 preseason poll, the Saint Joseph’s Hawks were all but written off before their season even began.
Fast forward a year or so later, those same Hawks gathered on the first day of school on Monday in the Ramsay Basketball Center for a special ring ceremony to commemorate their A-10 championship.
To help give out the rings, head coach Phil Martelli was able to gather members of past St. Joe’s A-10 championship teams: Rodney Blake and Bruiser Flint from the 1986 team, Pat Carroll from the 2004 team, and most recently Daryus Quarles from the 2014 team.
Notably missing from the ceremony was A-10 and Big 5 Player of the Year DeAndre' Bembry, a first-round draft pick of the Atlanta Hawks, and Isaiah Miles, who has begun his professional career in France with JDA Dijon.
Aaron Brown, the team’s third graduated senior and another key cog of that championship run, was able to attend before heading off to start his pro career in Iceland.
Martelli, addressing a room full of players, coaches, family and friends, made it clear just what it means to wear that ring and represent St. Joe’s as A-10 champions.
“Championships last with you for a long time, if not forever, and we’re getting the opportunity to share that with these players, their families and some really special people in the room,” Martelli said. “People are going to have some tough times; they’re going to lose loved ones, they’re going to lose possessions, they’re going to lose jobs, but forever this group of players is going to be the 2016 Atlantic 10 champions.”
The 2015-16 Hawks finished the regular season with a 28-8 record, good enough for second-best in school history. They won their fourth A-10 championship, made their second NCAA tournament appearance in the last three years and came a few points shy of a Sweet 16 appearance.
A simply remarkable season for a team that won just 13 games the year before. However, as with any sport, when one season ends the focus is already on next year.
"We knew in the beginning, since I’ve had this job, that each year is a separate entity and each team is a separate group," Martelli said. "Obviously the talent changes, we had a first-round draft pick, we had a great player in Isaiah Miles, so we had all-league players. Now it’s really the question of who's next and what expectations do they have for carrying the ball. Everybody gets a chance, and this group now has that opportunity."
Lamar Kimble, a 2015-16 A-10 All-Rookie selection, is one player who will be counted on following the recent departures of Bembry, Miles and Brown. Despite being just a sophomore, Kimble knows he’s ready for a more expanded role this season.
"I've always been a leader, but I definitely see a bigger role this year in terms of scoring and facilitating," Kimble said. "I'm definitely ready to [have a bigger role], I’m looking to have more goals than last year rather than just All-Rookie, so there’s definitely big dreams for me."
Regardless of the success that St. Joe’s saw last year, both the players and coaches recognize that a new season has begun. Prior to the ceremony and reception, the Hawks went through a routine summer practice. Players realize the work and effort that must be put in if they want to replicate last season’s run.
“It just starts from the older guys, you know, letting the younger guys know that what we did last year doesn’t fold over to the next year, we still have to work as hard as possible to get to where we need to get to,” Kimble said. “I think that’s the mind set we had this whole summer, going into the year now we have that same mind set where we want to get back to where we were at, that’s the position we want to be in.”
Martelli, entering his 22nd year on Hawk hill, looked out and addressed the crowd one last time after sliding his fifth championship ring (four A-10 titles and one from the 2004 undefeated regular season) onto his finger.
“Championships are won and championships are lost,” he said, “but the Hawk will never die.”
The Eagles were back to practice on Tuesday without the same four players.
Isaac Seumalo (pec), Wendell Smallwood (concussion), Vinny Curry (knee) and Taylor Hart (knee) were all held out of practice.
On Monday, head coach Doug Pederson said the team would hold Seumalo back from practice until he was 100 percent. Pederson expects Seumalo back next week and then the team will make a decision about the starting offensive line.
Pederson also said he expects Curry and Hart back for the season opener on Sept. 11.
For the second straight day, however, Carson Wentz (ribs) and Jordan Matthews (knee) were practicing. Neither will play on Thursday in the preseason finale against the Jets, but both also said they'll be ready for the opener.
The Eagles wrap up their preseason at the Linc on Thursday with a 7 p.m. kickoff against the Jets.
As Penn football players spread out around Franklin Field to take photos and do interviews for the program’s annual media day, Justin Watson hung by the track, playing a quick game of tag near the hurdles.
“Come and get me, J-Wat!” cried out Vhito DeCapria, the precocious 5-year-old cancer patient the team adopted last year through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation and who’s now back for his “sophomore” season.
Watson, known as “J-Wat” to most, smiled and played along. Being Vhito’s favorite player is just one of the many hats he wears. He’s also one of the team’s hardest-working, smartest and most versatile players — and he enters his junior season as perhaps the top wide receiver in the Ivy League, if not the entire FCS.
“Does he do anything to surprise me?” senior quarterback Alec Torgersen said from media day Monday. “Not anymore. He did at the beginning when he first got here. But now it’s just expected of him. I expect him to make those crazy one-handed grabs. I expect him to catch every ball I throw to him. When he doesn’t, I get disappointed.”
Torgersen has had plenty of opportunities to throw Watson passes — and not only last season when the star receiver caught 74 balls (fourth all-time at Penn) for 1,087 yards (second all-time) and nine touchdowns (third all-time). Throughout the summer, the two friends worked together at the same internship downtown. They ate lunch together every day and, at 5 p.m., they hopped on a subway back to Franklin Field, where they worked out in the weight room and practiced back-shoulder fades and option routes.
“A lot of college quarterbacks and receivers can’t have that type of chemistry but I think us being here all summer really helped,” Watson said. “It’s been cool doing that. It’s a special thing that’s definitely going to help us in the fall.”
In truth, Watson is actually more than just a receiver. Last season, he was also used on running plays, gaining 154 yards on the ground, including a 79-yard scamper that sealed Penn’s huge upset at Harvard. Watson finished with a staggering 249 all-purpose yards that day at Harvard Stadium, helping the Quakers win the game that effectively led to them sharing a piece of the Ivy League title. And he said he was all set to play another position by taking direct snaps in the team’s regular-season finale vs. Cornell before getting hurt.
“The uniqueness about Justin is not only his talent and skill on the field but his football IQ,” second-year head coach Ray Priore said. “During the course of the year, he in theory played every skill position on offense. And he didn’t even blink an eye doing it. That’s a special characteristic.”
Priore laughed when asked if he can find more ways to utilize Watson in 2016 but said he won’t put him back on kick returns, “which he probably could do.” He will, however, play safety when the Quakers line up in their “victory defense” at the end of games, “so you may see an interception.”
Watson says he’s ready for anything.
“That’s so much fun,” he said. “When you’re a kid in middle school, that’s what you do. It’s awesome to be back doing that. Anything I can do to help us win, I’ll do it, whether it’s running back or receiver. I don’t think they’ll let me throw it at quarterback after seeing my arm. But anything else I’m definitely willing and ready to do.”
In the end, though, playing receiver is what Watson loves most, saying that catching a deep ball — and hearing the crowd “hold their breath when the ball’s in the air and then erupt” — is his favorite thing as a football player. It’s also his skills as a receiver that has him earning so much attention heading into Penn’s opener vs. Lehigh on Sept. 17. Among his preseason accolades, the junior was named one of 22 players on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List — the only Ivy Leaguer to receive such an honor.
But if all of his records and accolades leads to opposing defenses paying more attention to him, Watson isn’t worried. That’s because he knows the team’s other receivers like fifth-year senior Cam Countryman and sophomore Christian Pearson are more than capable of having big years too.
“If you put two guys on me, we’ve got a bunch of other great receivers who will be open and will kill you down the field,” Watson said. “If I’ve got to take two or three guys every game, we’ll be 10-0 because I know everyone else will be making plays.”
It’s that kind of selflessness that has endeared Watson to his teammates, who enjoy the energy he brings to practice and how he always seems to be the first player in the training room.
“He’s an incredible player,” said Countryman, one of Penn’s leaders. “I have the utmost respect for him. When he came in his freshman year, you noticed right away the talent he had. So all of the accomplishments that he gets, I’m not surprised at all.
“And they’ll keep coming in.”