By Joseph Frescott, Sports Editor
Following the most successful season in the program’s Division I history, the LIU Sharks football team is coming into this season with high expectations.
The 2022 season was a tale of two halves. Led by first-year Head Coach Ron Cooper, the Sharks struggled early on, highlighted by their 57-7 loss at the hands of Saint Francis University on Homecoming.
After an abysmal start to the year that saw the Sharks drop seven straight, it was clear that changes were needed, particularly in the quarterback position.
With graduate Southern Methodist University transfer Derek Green being the perennial starter for the first seven weeks of the season, LIU looked to true freshman quarterback Luca Stanzani to lead the Sharks for the last four weeks of the season.
The mid-season personnel change paid off in a big way, as LIU would go undefeated with Stanzani at the helm.
This stretch gave the Sharks a 4-3 conference record, which was enough to place third in the Northeast Conference (NEC).
When looking at this season, LIU’s football program is as confident as ever, particularly at the quarterback position.
“Luca had a great spring. He has been here all summer. What do I expect out of him? Well, he’s played a little bit. He’s not a freshman anymore so I expect his leadership to come out and lead our offense and help lead our team. He is still young, but you are talking about a no-nonsense young man who is talented; he can throw it and he can run,” Head Coach Ron Cooper said. “If he was two inches taller we probably wouldn’t be talking about him, he would be somewhere else playing, but that’s a good thing.”
Stanzani wasn’t the only Shark to surpass expectations last season, as a fellow freshman had a standout season on the other side of the field.
Now redshirt-sophomore Eric O’Neil had a phenomenal freshman campaign, finishing the season with 51 total tackles, 21 tackles for loss, and 10 sacks. This outstanding season didn’t go unnoticed, as the Staten Island native won NEC Defensive Rookie of the Year, placed First-team All-NEC, and was a finalist for the Jerry Rice award, which is given to the best freshman in the NCAA Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
Coach Cooper had high praise for the dominant defensive end.
“Eric O’Neil is special, to do what he did last year as a freshman. He is hard to block 1-on-1 so we got him in positions this year where teams can’t chip him and help. He’s gonna play both inside and outside,” he said. “He’s a very talented young man and hard to block.”
O’Neil credits the coaching staff for his impressive freshman season.
“The coaches helped me a lot. They put me in great positions to succeed so there was no reason not to be confident going out there, having fun, and playing,” O’Neil said. “[Coach Cooper] is a great leader honestly. He is always helping us out and he is a player’s coach. He’s a good guy. Everything he does is for us and I think he’s gonna lead us to be very good this year.”
With a majority of their starters returning, the Sharks open their 2023 campaign on the road against tough non-conference opponents.
The season began in Athens, Ohio, where the Sharks faced the 2022 runner-ups in the Mid-American Conference (MAC), the Ohio Bobcats.
The first half was competitive, as the Sharks found themselves only trailing by two scores after a 41-yard field goal by Michael Coney cut the Bobcats lead to 14 at the half.
Ohio University put the game out of reach in the second half, scoring 10 straight as they cruised to a 27-10 victory.
Despite the losing effort, O’Neil proved that last season was not a fluke, recording 13 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and one sack while also catching his first career interception. The all-around performance was enough to be named NEC Player of the Week for the third time in his career.
The Sharks looked to bounce back when they traveled to Smithfield, Rhode Island to face a familiar foe in the Bryant Bulldogs, a former NEC rival.
After an almost two-hour delay due to thunder and lightning in the area, the 12th meeting between the two programs kicked off.
The game got off to a slow start, with both defenses dominating. The Bulldogs were able to get on the board first, scoring the first 14 points of the game after a five-yard connection from junior quarterback Zevi Eckhaus to senior tight end AC White extended the Bryant lead going into the half.
To make matters worse, quarterback Luca Stanzani suffered a shoulder injury early in the second quarter and could not return. Freshmen quarterbacks Chris Howell and Ethan Greenwood led the Shark’s offense in the second half and put together an impressive nine-play, 75-yard drive that was capped off by a 26-yard rushing score by Chris Howell late in the third quarter.
This would prove to not be enough, as a scoreless fourth quarter would give Bryant the 21-10 lead, their third straight victory against LIU.
Despite the consecutive losses, redshirt senior and 2022 LIU Offensive MVP Owen Glascoe has one thing on his mind.
“To me, it’s really just winning. I wouldn’t mind a couple of touchdowns, but personally, I just want to win as a team. I have been here for a really long time and it hasn’t been the best, but I believe this year it will be a big switch.”
For Coach Cooper, the goal each week remains the same.
“Just to play better each week and improve upon what we did last year. We finished the season strong and we had a good offseason with conditioning and training and getting our team ready. Just to have a better football team this year,” Cooper said,
The Sharks will look to get their first win of the season when they travel to Waco, Texas to face the Baylor Bears on Saturday, September 16.