- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

Upon returning last season to a Catholic University program he once turned into a national power, Tom Clark found there were barely enough players to field a team. Now he appears primed to make the Cardinals a potent football force again.

Catholic was a steady presence in the Division III top 20 and the NCAA playoffs under Clark in the 1990s, posting two perfect regular seasons. When he returned to the Northeast school after a three-year hiatus in early 2004, the team was so short-handed — Clark inherited only 28 veteran players —it might have had to forfeit games.

“It was very, very difficult for a program that was so competitive at the national level to look like it was going toward extinction,” said Clark, who coached the nonscholarship Cardinals from 1994 to 2000. “The lifeblood of a Division III program is having kids. We don’t have athletic scholarships where you can replace players very easily. When those numbers dwindle down, you start worrying about whether you can field a team.”

The coach, who spent three seasons as offensive coordinator at Division I-AA William & Mary before returning to Catholic, immediately infused the program with 47 freshmen and six transfers through relentless recruiting. The new players gave the Cardinals enough depth for scout teams — and enough to ensure they could finish the 2004 season.

The one thing his freshman-heavy team could not do, however, was win. The Cardinals went 0-10 — the worst record in the program’s 110-year history — and were outscored 383-118, an average of 26.5 points. Catholic routinely was whipped by schools like Ursinus (Pa.) 39-0, McDaniel (Md.) 34-0 and Bridgewater (Va.) 67-9.

“There was frustration from losing them all, but it was really a JV team playing a varsity schedule,” said Clark, who had a 56-14-1 mark in his first stint at Catholic. “It was really a situation last year where I felt like and I think the administration felt like we saved the football program.”

Now the outlook is considerably brighter as the Cardinals prepare to play Shenandoah (Va.) at home in Saturday’s season opener.

Clark, 45, leaned back at his desk recently and looked up at a large bulletin board that contained a depth chart, on which his players’ names were written on red cardboard cutouts. Some positions go four or five deep. There are 60 new players this season, and 103 showed up for fall camp.

“We really improved ourselves across the board,” Clark said. “We made a lot of progress. It is starting to be a lot more fun looking up [at the board].”

Clark came back because he wanted to be a head coach again and was convinced the Catholic administration wanted a program that could compete for a national title. He left the school originally in part because he felt the program had gone as far as it could under the old circumstances.

The university is in the midst of a $2.7 million fund-raising campaign to improve its athletic facilities, including the installation of a $1.1 million athletic turf field in the football stadium.

And there is talk of a quick return to the glory days, even though Clark has yet to win a game. This team has exceptional speed and experience and a recruiting class Clark considers one of his best.

“This team can win the [Old Dominion Athletic Conference]. Hands down,” said sophomore receiver Noah Rogers, one of 12 freshmen who started last season. “We got beat up last year. But it seems like this team is going to do a complete 180. We’re heading in the right direction. We’re going to do some real big things this year.”

Catholic had a 10-0 regular season in 1997 and made the playoffs for the first time since joining Division III in 1977. It was the first of two undefeated regular seasons and three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

Clark oversaw one of the biggest turnarounds in D-III history when he took the job the first time in ‘94 after coming over from Bishop McNamara High School in Prince George’s County. The Cardinals went 1-9 the year before but finished 8-2 in his initial season.

“Different situation,” Clark said. “We had 55 mature kids on that team. They were 1-9 partly because they didn’t really have a good quarterback. And we brought in a good quarterback [Kevin Ricca]. Last season was a little bit of a baptism by fire. At times, we were competitive. We were just like a leaky roof. We patch one leak, then we would spring a leak somewhere else.”

Ricca set records in a pass-crazed, no-huddle offense as the Cardinals put up points like they were playing pinball. Ricca is long gone, but his brother, Keith, is now on campus as a freshman quarterback.

“Eventually, we will be another undefeated team,” said Keith Ricca, who passed on Division I-A interest from Connecticut and I-AA programs like Delaware and Richmond to follow in Kevin’s footsteps. The younger Ricca, who at 6-foot-4 is five inches taller than his brother, had one of the best seasons in Maryland prep history by throwing for 3,591 yards and 45 touchdowns last season while playing for his father, John, at St. John’s Prospect Hall in Frederick.

Ricca is only one of several connections to the old winning ways. Co-defensive coordinator Bob Larson spent four seasons with Clark the first time, and running backs coach Lenny Moore also was an assistant. Mike Hunter, an All-American receiver under Clark, is the co-offensive coordinator, and co-defensive coordinator Tim Whitney played linebacker at Catholic in the late 1990s.

Ricca is competing with transfer John Jacobs, who followed Clark from William & Mary, and sophomore Michael Geraghty. Two 2003 standouts, all-league linebacker Bobby Stutz and receiver Nick Bublavi, are back after missing last season.

Clark has been especially successful tapping talent from around the Beltway and at Catholic schools nationwide. Players come from Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, as well as more distant Kansas and Ohio.

“When my high school coach told me Coach Clark was coming back, that was it,” said Rogers, who played at Arlington’s Bishop O’Connell for former NFL player Steve Trimble. “That was where I wanted to be.”

Clark originally thought it would take three recruiting classes to revive the Cardinals, but he now feels — particularly if the offensive and defensive lines hold up — it could happen ahead of schedule. Despite a winless season last year and being picked to finish last in the league, the Cardinals and Clark appear ready to go back to the future.

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