After the arrival of head coach Al Bagnoli in 2015 and the subsequent success of the program, the Columbia football team began its 2017 season amid supporters’excitement and high expectations. With Bagnoli’s first recruiting class entering its sophomore year, fans anticipated that these young players were ready to make their first contributions to a program that had long known more failure than success. The plan for the season was to add nine sophomores to the starting lineup, putting the kind of pressure on them that college football players do not usually face until they are juniors or seniors.
“You’re typically looking, in most cases, to the upperclassmen to be your leaders,” special teams coordinator and linebackers coach Justin Stovall said before the season began that year. “As we continue to build this program, we are looking to the upperclassmen to step up. But we’re also encouraging the young guys that are in those roles.”
Those underclassmen stepped into those roles, and did it well; the 2017 season wound up being the most successful for the Lions in over 20 years.
This past season, that same sophomore class from 2017 led the program as seniors. The 2019 team did not find the same level of success it did in 2017, but some of the top players from Bagnoli’s first recruitment class have achieved remarkable individual accomplishments. Others struggled with injuries or found their starting positions usurped by younger players throughout their college careers.
Two such sophomores instrumental to that 2017 team’s success were senior wide receivers Josh Wainwright and Ronald Smith II. Heading into his sophomore season, Smith admitted that the learning curve had been steep, as both players had been forced to “grow up quickly” as first-years. That early maturation process wound up serving the pair well in their sophomore seasons. Despite missing three games due to an injury, Smith played well enough in the other seven games that season to be awarded an honorable mention All-Ivy. However, it was Wainwright who really stole the show in 2017 as he achieved a program-record of 1,001 receiving yards in a single season, earning him a first-team All-Ivy selection.
That season would prove to be the peak of their individual performances with the Lions. Wainwright suffered a torn ACL in the first game of the 2018 season and had to sit out the next nine games. When he got back on the field in 2019, he was unable to match his previous success as a sophomore, finishing with just 571 yards.
Despite his drop in performance, Wainwright maintained a powerful presence on the team. While Wainwright only achieved about half of the receiving yards from his sophomore season, those 571 yards led the program. He was named a team captain during this most recent campaign and finished his senior season ranked fourth all-time in program history in career receiving yards and third in career receptions and touchdowns.
Smith remained relatively healthy during his junior year and posted similar statistics to those from the 2017 season, and he was named to the third-team All-Ivy League in 2018. However, in the first half of his senior season, Smith was also injured; he wound up playing in just three of the Lions’ 10 games this season.
Senior linebacker Michael Murphy only recorded seven sacks prior to the 2017 season. However, he did not lack confidence heading into his sophomore campaign, asserting his readiness for the increased responsibilities coming his way by claiming, “It’s my time.”
Murphy’s words rang true as he stepped into a starting role that season and immediately produced at a high level. In eight games, he finished with 42 total tackles and a career-high six tackles for loss, and his performance earned him an honorable mention All-Ivy. While Murphy did not earn an All-Ivy selection in his final two seasons, his statistics remained relatively stable in the following years, and he was ultimately named a team captain alongside Wainwright this past season.
Senior placekicker Oren Milstein made waves as a first-year, even while the rest of the team struggled to a 3-7 record. Milstein managed to kick his way to a first-team All-Ivy selection and led the Ancient Eight with 12 field goals.
Unfortunately, Milstein was unable to keep up his momentum. After a stellar first season, he regressed during his sophomore campaign and converted just eight of his 13 field goal attempts, resulting in an over 30 percent drop in his success rate.
Milstein experienced even more bad luck in his junior year, as an injury forced the placekicker to miss the entire season. As the coaching staff looked for a replacement placekicker for Milstein, it landed on first-year Alex Felkins to fill the position for the 2019 season. When Felkins joined the program, it quickly became clear that he was the man for the job, resulting in Milstein being permanently relegated to the bench.
Despite not seeing the field in his final two seasons, Milstein will still graduate tied for the ranking of fourth-most field goals in program history and holding the record for the sixth-most points after touchdowns. Milstein recently announced that he will continue his career as a graduate transfer at Vanderbilt University, which plays in the competitive Southeastern Conference.
While the current senior players could not match the success of their sophomore season in 2017, they have a lot to show for their time at Columbia. This season’s football seniors have seen it all—from record-breaking seasons and accolades to injuries and benchings—during their college careers.