Freshman Rowley has made impact with Warriors

Mike Clark walked through the front gate of the Shangraw Athletic Complex. His car was about a block and a half away and as he prepared to make the left turn onto Union Avenue, a pickup carrying some of his Lycoming football players approached.

“See ya, coach,” one of the players yelled.

Clark pointed at the truck as it drove away.

“Now that kid,” he said, “is going to be really good.”

Freshman safety Austin Rowley had just played his most significant role in the Lycoming defense as the Warriors overcame a 19-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat Widener in Week 2. Rowley stepped into game when starter Allen Martin was injured midway through the game. He hasn’t stepped out since.

Rowley made five tackles and intercepted a pass that September day against Widener. A week later he earned his first start against Wilkes and led the team with 10 solo tackles. The week after that, he intercepted another pass against King’s. Against 13th-ranked Delaware Valley, his seven tackles were the second-most on the team.

When Rowley committed to Lycoming earlier this year, Clark knew he had an opportunity to be a really good player for the Warriors. Whether or not he expected it to be this quickly, who knows?

“I think some people missed the boat on him,” Clark said earlier this week. “He’s not the biggest kid there is. He’s slight, but he’s fast and smart and instinctive and a good tackler. All of those things, everything we’ve seen, translated the way we hoped it would. He’s got a shot to be really good.”

Martin has since returned from the injury he sustained against Widener, and last week against Delaware Valley, he and Rowley — both first-year players — made up half of the Warriors’ secondary. With all-conference cornerback D.J. Boyd still out with a shoulder injury, the emergence of Rowley and Martin this year allowed co-defensive coordinators Steve Wiser and Mark Surma to move safety Jeff Coplin to cornerback to replace Boyd.

Rowley has earned the kind of confidence from his coaching staff midway through his first season which has allowed him to be a consistent contributor. It’s exactly the kind of impact he hoped to have on the defense when he chose to come to Williamsport.

“I’m really grateful the coaches have seen a lot in me to put me out there and be confident in me out there,” Rowley said. “I definitely think lot of my teammates have really helped to get this jump from high school to college. And to be honest, I think without my teammates it’d be a lot hard to do this.”

Even with the graduation of all-conference safety Joe Pinzka a year ago, it appeared the Warriors were going to be set at the position coming into the year. Coplin was one of the biggest playmakers the Warriors had defensively a year ago when he intercepted a pass in three consecutive games. And freshman Ryan Cocciadiferro recorded 20 tackles in three significant weeks of playing time.

But Cocciadiferro chose not to come back to the team this year, leaving a safety spot open. Martin took a medical hardship year last season as a freshman because of a back injury, and when he went down against Widener, Rowley was thrust into the mix.

Four of his five tackles against Widener were solo stops. All 10 of his tackles against Wilkes were solo stops, including a vicious hit which belied his 160-pound frame. Don’t be fooled by his slight frame. Rowley has a wrestling background having won 72 career matches for Perkiomen Valley.

He’s not afraid of physicality. In fact, he quite enjoys it. Tackling is nothing more than hitting a double-leg takedown. Even if his size was the reason other programs missed out on Rowley, it’s every other trait in his repertoire which has made him a productive member of the Lycoming defense through five weeks.

“I think the two sports have helped me become a physical, athletic player as a whole,” Rowley said. “I know I still have a lot to work on, but I still know what I’m capable of and I think my teammates know what I’m capable of.”

The biggest adjustment has been understanding and implementing the role he plays on the defense. In high school, Rowley largely just used his instincts and athleticism to be a playmaker wherever the opportunity presented itself.

It’s what led to him posting 158 tackles and six interceptions a year ago as he was named to the Class 6A all-state team. He’s learning how to handle his responsibilities within the defense while still not losing the instincts which made him so dangerous as a high school player.

“As long as guys trust their instincts within what you’re asking them to do initially, then that’s fine,” Clark said. “For him it might mean jumping a route or recognizing something a split-second early which can lead to an interception.”

“I think at times I still try to be a playmaker like I was in high school, but at times it can hurt the team,” Rowley said. “But it’s allowed me to really play a bit more comfortable when I’m on the field and it lets me make plays.”