By James Greene
Special to GoHolyCross.com
Senior Sean Lamkin was heartbroken. "That was the worst loss I've ever had," he said of the 28-27 defeat to Colgate last season that propelled the Raiders to the Patriot League championship and football championship subdivision playoffs, and sent Holy Cross to the offseason. "We could have and should have won that game."
That sentence could easily stand as the mission statement for the 2009 Crusader football season. In each of the last three years, Holy Cross has finished at least tied for second in the Patriot League. It's the team's best three-year stretch since 1990-1992, but that has served as no consolation for a program searching for its first Patriot League championship since 1991. "It's definitely a motivating factor," Lamkin said of the close calls the last three years. "The coaches don't have to bring it up."
Last year's 7-4 record stands as especially disappointing for Lamkin and company. The Crusaders lost those four contests by a total of just eight points. "We were definitely better than our record," he said. "We got a couple of bad breaks. One play changes the game."
During the rise of Holy Cross football under head coach Tom Gilmore, all eyes have been on the offense. With an unrelenting air attack, a bastion of an offensive line and a strong-armed quarterback rewriting the school record book, the offensive 11 has garnered the bulk of the attention in the program's climb toward the top of the Patriot League. While the offense receives the accolades, the defense has very quietly held its own.
Eleven Holy Cross players were named All-Patriot League in 2008, the most to be honored in 16 years. Four of those were from the defensive side of the ball, the highest number of Crusader defenders to earn all-conference honors since 2001. Lamkin anchors the defense and led the team with 71 tackles last year en route to second team All-Patriot League honors. The 6-2, 225 pound outside linebacker hails from Oklahoma, long a football hotbed.
After beginning football in sixth grade, Lamkin attended Jenks Prep, a pigskin juggernaut 20 minutes outside of Tulsa. Home to 12 Oklahoma 6A state championships, the school enjoys a reputation for sending players to large college programs, and some graduates have moved on to the NFL. "It was a lot of fun," Lamkin said of playing at Jenks. "Playing in front of sold out crowds and playing in front of 35,000 people."
In his four years, Lamkin helped the team win the state championship in 2003 and back-to-back district titles in 2004 and 2005. A senior captain in '05, he had 126 tackles and one interception over his last two years in high school, including in an abbreviated senior season cut short by a broken collarbone. He was named All-District both seasons, despite the injury in his final year.
Before getting hurt, Lamkin had been eyeing a college career at Tulsa University or at a Big XII school. Though he returned to the field late in the season, his football future was cloudy. The opportunities to play at large programs in the Midwest began drying up.
"I started looking at Ivy League schools," Lamkin said. "My mom would send out tapes. She sent one to Holy Cross, and then I heard back. Four days later, I signed. I went from one program with a rich tradition to another."
Lamkin became a Crusader in the fall of 2006 and saw playing time as a freshman. He played in nine contests, mostly as a backup and on special teams, making two tackles during the season. It was his critical fumble recovery in the fourth quarter at Lafayette that set up the game-winning drive for Holy Cross. That season ended three weeks later with a crushing one-point loss at Colgate, a theme that has become all too familiar for the Oklahoman and his teammates.
Being thrust right into the middle of varsity action was not a difficult transition for him, although he did have to make some changes to his game. "The knowledge you have to have at the college level is the biggest adjustment," Lamkin said. "I was prepared for the speed, but you have to know what the entire defense is doing."
The gradual process from fill-in to impact player had begun. He built on his successful freshman debut with a solid sophomore season, accumulating 22 tackles, 19 of them solo, while playing in all 11 games. His best performance came against Georgetown in his only start of the season, when he made five tackles, including two for loss, and had one fumble recovery in a 55-0 win. It was a precursor to last season when Lamkin enjoyed a breakout campaign and emerged as a defensive force at outside linebacker for the Crusaders. He started all 11 games, his team-high 71 tackles were 12th best in the Patriot League, and he led the team with 55 solo stops. His biggest individual performances came in some of the most crucial games of the season, including a team-leading 13 tackle effort against Colgate and a 10 stop, two sack stat line at Lafayette.
Lamkin credits the defensive coaches and specifically coach Gilmore, himself a defensive specialist, for his development as a player. "He is a hands-on coach with the defense and the linebackers especially. It's been helpful." At this year's preseason camp, the senior worked on his game and prepared to take on a leadership role on defense. "I'm taking a lot more time learning the entire defense, making sure we're all on the same page, which is really important. I've been working on my technique in camp and critiquing how I play. Doing my job is critical to the defense."
The offense is bolstered by the return of preseason Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year Dominic Randolph at quarterback along with four starters on the line, but it's the defense that features the most experience. Nine starters return, including all four at the linebacker positions. Lamkin and fellow seniors Marcus Rodriguez, Andrew Cialino and Anthony Campbell are the nucleus of a defense that looks to improve upon last year's efforts. Holy Cross allowed 25.8 points and 367.3 yards per game in 2008. "We have a lot of other seniors at other positions coming back," Lamkin said of the team. "Marcus and I work really well together. We're proud of the offense, and we're working to get the defense its own accolades."
Asked what intangible the team needs to do in order to get over the hump, Lamkin didn't hesitate. "The team has it right now. We have to put everything we have towards the Patriot League championship. Forcing turnovers will be key." Last year the defense caused 21 turnovers, including nabbing 17 interceptions.
As Holy Cross embarks on the 2009 campaign, it finds itself in unfamiliar territory as the conference favorite for the first time in 18 years. The Crusaders received 67 points and seven first place votes, edging out Colgate in the preseason Patriot League poll. Holy Cross was also ranked 13th nationally in Phil Steele's 2009 College Football Preview. "We take notice but it's not really important," Lamkin said of the preseason media hype. "It's an honor to be picked in the polls so high. As a team we don't look at that. We know we have a target on our backs. We're not satisfied because we haven't won anything. We're hungry. We're not complacent at all. We've got to keep giving a little more than we have."
Regardless of how the season pans out, Lamkin's future is bright. In the wake of former teammate Brett McDermott's participation in training camp with the Indianapolis Colts this summer, Lamkin still keeps an eye on possible football in the days after Holy Cross, though he recognizes the odds are long. "Playing in the NFL is every player's wish," he said. Should his days on the gridiron end this fall in a Crusader uniform, Lamkin is prepared for what will come next. An economics major, he hopes to attend graduate school and perhaps pursue a career in finance.
This story originally appeared in the September 5 edition of the Holy Cross Game Day Program, for the contest between the Crusaders and Georgetown. To order a copy of the program, visit the online store.