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UNH connections looking forward to playing at Lehigh
Plenty of good seats are generally available on the visiting side of Goodman Stadium for all Lehigh University football home games; except, of course, for that special game that happens there every other November when Lafayette stops by.
However when the Mountain Hawks welcome the University of New Hampshire on Saturday in a battle of nationally ranked FCS [Football Championship Subdivision] teams, the visiting side may not offer as much open space as usual.
That’s because four players from Lehigh Valley Conference schools — Central Catholic graduates and brothers Shane and Tad McNeely, former Freedom standout Mike Coccia and Northampton product Danny Riley — will be coming home and they will attract family and friends who otherwise wouldn’t be spending their Saturday afternoon in the shadow of South Mountain.
It’s technically Lehigh’s Homecoming game, but it’s also a much-anticipated homecoming for several local kids.
“I can’t wait. … I’m so excited,” Shane McNeely, the Wildcats’ starting junior middle linebacker, said. “Once I heard that we were playing Lehigh again, I couldn’t wait for the week to get here and I know that every one of the guys from the area is excited, too. Now it’s here and it’s great.”
The Wildcats roster also has several guys from other parts of Pennsylvania, including Perkasie’s Harold Spears and Souderton’s Cody Muller, whose father (Chuck) is the head coach at Notre Dame-Green Pond. Spears is the starting tight end and Muller starts at defensive end.
These guys continue a tradition of Lehigh Valley-bred players who headed to the Granite State. That tradition extends back more than a decade and has included names like Joey Orlando and George Yasso from Liberty, Tim Cramsey from Central Catholic and Jeff Pammer from Northampton.
It’s not just the UNH’s Lehigh Valley connection that is excited about Saturday’s game.
“We have a lot of guys from New Jersey and even some guys from Pittsburgh who are happy about this one because it’s only about half the distance for their families than it is for a home game in Durham, [N.H.],” Coccia said.
Everyone in attendance should expect a hard-fought battle between UNH, ranked seventh and 10th in the national polls, and a resilient Mountain Hawks squad, ranked No. 18 and No. 21, that has rallied to win each of its first three games.
The last time these two met at Goodman in September 2011, it was an all-time classic that went to overtime before UNH prevailed 48-41 with Orlando scoring the game-winning TD.
Both programs have hopes of winning their respective leagues and making the FCS playoffs.
UNH has played only two games, losing on a last-second field goal to FBS member Central Michigan, 24-21, after leading 13-0 and 21-7; and then routing Patriot League preseason favorite Colgate 53-23 on Sept. 14. The Wildcats had last Saturday off.
McNeely, a member of Central Catholic’s 2010 PIAA 3A title team, said he watched Lehigh’s come-from-behind win at Princeton on Saturday night and was impressed.
“They’re a really good football team,” he said. “Offensively, they have a good receiver, their offensive line, their running backs, their quarterback are all good. They’re solid all the way around on offense. I wouldn’t know much about their defense because I’m focused on their offense.”
McNeely has a unique connection with the Lehigh defense. He remains good friends with Nathan Roberts, a former CCHS teammate. McNeely and Roberts communicate all the time, but not so much this week because Roberts’ father is Donnie Roberts, one of Lehigh’s defensive coordinators.
“Nate said he’s not allowed to talk to me this week,” McNeely said, laughing. “I thought that was pretty funny. I said ‘Ok, I’ll see you after the game.’ There’s a lot of connections like that with this game.”
More concerned with Lehigh’s defense would be Coccia and Tad McNeely, who start alongside each other on UNH’s offensive line. Coccia, a junior, is the center and Tad McNeely is the left guard.
Coccia is a three-year starter, while McNeely is a redshirt freshman getting his first full-time action.
Tad McNeely will be playing against a former teammate in Central Catholic grad Noah Robb, an inside linebacker for Lehigh.
The Mountain Hawks will have their hands full.
“Offensively, we’ve put up a lot of yards and points,” Coccia said. “We had some guys who were injured who we’re getting back, so we’re excited about that. Our mentality is that the only way we can be stopped is if we stop ourselves. If we don’t have penalties or give up sacks, we’ll score.”
The Wildcats try to play at three speeds offensively — fast, faster and at a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me pace.
Remember, UNH is where Chip Kelly cut his teeth and he remains close to the program. Even after he got the Eagles job, Kelly made an appearance at the Wildcats’ spring game.
“The key to our success is that we play with an edge,” Coccia said. “As soon as the ball is set, we want to snap it.”
UNH not only wants to play fast, but it also wants to play tough. That’s where the Lehigh Valley mentality comes in.
“These are all tough, hard-nosed players from the Lehigh Valley and eastern Pennsylvania,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “We’ve been fortunate over the years to have a great recruiting base from that area.
“That area is similar to New Hampshire … blue-collar, hard-working families, And playing down there makes it easy for New Jersey and Maryland people to come up to see us as well. We’re looking to forward it.”
NEW HAMPSHIRE (1-1) AT LEHIGH (3-0)
When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Goodman Stadium, Bethlehem.
TV: Service Electric TV-2.
Radio: AM 1230, 1320 (ESPN of the Lehigh Valley).
By Keith Groller, Of The Morning Call