Before he handed the ball over to freshman running back Dom Bragalone for his first career college game, junior quarterback Nick Shafnisky handed over his iPod.
Nerves were settling in for the 5-foot-10 speedster from South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, with the debut of his Lehigh career, and subsequent starting job in the Mountain Hawk backfield, just minutes away.
Shafnisky had the answer far away from the playbook.
“Before the game (Shafnisky) was listening to country and he could tell I was nervous, so he made me listen to it to calm me down,” Bragalone said. “Then he just told me to keep doing what I’ve been doing in practice, that’s its just another football game and not to be nervous.”
Then, 114 yards of total offense later, Bragalone’s nerves were gone and the Hawks were 1-0 after dispatching Central Connecticut State University, 20-14.
The opening win officially put last season’s 27-7 beating, courtesy of Lafayette College at Yankee Stadium, in the past with a new season underway. With the loss of the 150th game now just a sore memory, a crop of new freshmen helped get their new team and season off to a winning start.
Lehigh jumped out to a 17-0 start, courtesy of a pair of Shafnisky touchdowns coming by way of the run and through the air. The Whitehall, Pennsylvania, native scrambled for a 22-yard touchdown to put the Hawks on the board, the first of which will likely be a number of rushing scores for the dual-threat passer. Shafnisky and Bragalone each carried the ball 17 times, combining for 151 yards on the night. Fellow freshman running back Micco Brisker (Milton, Georgia) tacked on 33 yards of his own.
Last season featured the chemistry of Shafnisky and now sophomore wide receiver Troy Pelletier, who sustained an injury in the victory after recording just one catch for 15 yards. For the tandem, building on last year’s success is at the forefront of each practice.
“The biggest thing right now is just comfortability together,” Shafnisky said. “This year in practice we’ll see some things, he’s still going to run his routes but he’s not going to be robotic, he’s going to see an opening, read the defense or read the defense with me. He’ll run a route a certain way and hopefully we’ll both see it and take advantage of it.”
With Pelletier sidelined for much of the contest Friday night, Shafnisky turned to junior receiver Trevor Socarras (Franklin Township, New Jersey) and sophomore receiver Gatlin Casey (Navarre, Florida). Socarras, who had only seen action in two games during his career, and Casey whose college debut came Friday night, put themselves on the map at the expense of the Blue Devils defense. Socarras hauled in six Shafnisky passes for 80 yards and Gatlin recorded seven receptions for 67 yards and his first collegiate touchdown.
For Shafnisky and his newly acquired freshmen duo joining him in the backfield, Lehigh’s offense has become even more dangerous.
“We have a plethora of receivers that can go out and make plays with the ball in their hands. We have five or six guys that can play,” Shafnisky said. “Our offensive line did a great job up front and if the two backs run like they did yesterday, hopefully we’re going to be a scary offense to contain.”
A Blue Devil rally put the team within reach of the Hawks at 20-14 in the fourth quarter, but offensive production and strong defense late in the game sealed the win for Lehigh. Although squandering its lead wasn’t in the game plan, Lehigh’s ability to hang on in crunch time was something that was lost on the Hawks last season.
For coach Andy Coen, that was the difference.
“I think we took over the line of scrimmage really on both sides of the ball towards the end of the game, made the big plays,” Coen told Lehigh Sports after the game. “We did a lot of work – physical work – on fourth quarter offense and we executed it tremendously tonight.”
Anchoring the defense Friday night was junior linebacker Colton Caslow. Caslow, who led the team in tackles as a freshman in 2013 and earned first team All-Patriot League honors last year, picked up where he left off against the Blue Devils. The Altamonte, Florida, native had his hand in a game-high 17 tackles, holding CCSU to just 14 points, tying Lehigh’s best defensive performance last season.
Lehigh will travel to James Madison University on Sept. 12 for a 4 p.m. kickoff against the Dukes.