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Eagles, Phoenix finish surprising 'turnaround' seasons

Pete Lembo and Brian VanGorder were hired last winter to turn around the football programs at Elon and Georgia Southern.
    As the only first year coaches in the Southern Conference — Lembo at Elon and VanGorder at Southern — they've done just that. Although in the Eagles’ case, it was not the turnaround anticipated.
    Lembo and the Phoenix have been one of the feel good stories in the Southern Conference and I-AA football this season. Elon (5-5, 3-4) can claim its first winning season since 2000 with a win Saturday against The Citadel (4-6, 3-3).
    The Eagles, on the other hand, have been one of the more shocking stories in I-AA, a division in which they have been a major player over the years with six national championships.
    Athletic director Sam Baker decided to terminate coach Mike Sewak last year after an 8-4 season. Included in the losses was a first-round playoff game with Texas State in which the Eagles blew a 19-point third quarter lead en route to losing, 50-35.
    Southern fans now wonder if they’ll ever again see a 19-point lead after the way things have gone this season. Five of the losses have come by a total of 18 points. Botched extra points and missed field goals have been a factor in each loss.
    The Eagles (3-7, 2-5) end their season on Saturday against the University of Central Arkansas (7-3). A win by the Bears would not necessarily be an upset. Southern needs a win to avoid the school’s worst season since the rebirth of football in 1982. Game time at Paulson Stadium is 1 p.m.
    Scheduled as a tuneup for the playoffs, this game now promises to be a stern test for the struggling Eagles — losers of four straight. Southern has not dropped the final game of the regular season since 1994 when it lost at The Citadel, 17-15. It has never lost the final regular season game when it was played at home.
    The Bears are in their first year of I-AA football. Last year they reached the quarterfinals of the Division II playoffs before losing to North Alabama, 41-38, in overtime.
    “They’re a team loaded with junior college transfers,” said VanGorder. “It’s an extremely talented looking team. They’ve got a couple of real good wins against Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State.
    “They run to the ball well on defense,” said VanGorder, “and their offense is fairly balanced with a quarterback that is very productive for them, completing 66 percent of his passes. We’ll have our hands full with this group.”
    The Bears, who are first-year members of the Southland Conference, are led by quarterback Nathan Brown and tailback Ross Brown. In their first recruit class in the I-AA ranks, Coach Clint Conque brought in 33 players. Five of them were transfers. Of the 99 players on the roster, 21 came from other colleges.
    Nathan has completed 139 of 211 passes for 1,579 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Ross has run for 792 yards and eight scores. Fourteen different receivers have caught passes, eight for 10 or more, with Aaron Fairooz leading the way with 54 receptions for 731 yards and six touchdowns.
    Defensively UCA is giving up 313.8 yards per game, only 123 on the ground.
    Elon and The Citadel promises to be an interesting matchup. Both teams are finishing on a strong note, and the two coaches are close friends.
    Kevin Higgins is in his second year at The Citadel, and there’s no question he has the Bulldogs (4-6, 3-3) moving in the right direction. Previously he was with the Detroit Lions for four years. Prior to going to the NFL he was 56-25-1 in seven years at Lehigh, 34-4 his last three seasons.
    Lembo was Higgins’ offensive coordinator and succeeded him as head coach, going 44-14 in five years before taking the Elon job.
    Friendship will be cast aside for three hours, however, as Lembo and Higgins try to get a signature win for their programs. For Elon it would be a winning season, while the 'Dogs are looking for their first winning year in the SoCon since 1992 (when they were league champs).
    “It’s been so long since they’ve had any success here, so the opportunity to pursue a winning season in our first season here would almost be like going to the playoffs or winning a conference championship somewhere else,” said Lembo. “I think this is just a great opportunity we have at this point in the season.
    “I think the kids will play hard, but we are who we are,” said Lembo. “We’ve just got to do what we can to position ourselves to have a chance. If it doesn’t work out we can’t feel bad because of all the good things we’ve done this year: playing competitively and getting our foundation in place and trying to build a vision of where we’re going in the future.”

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