Flash forward 21 years, and the Lions are 5-0 once again and Ivy League opponents probably wish Hill would … well … roll over. But the 6-foot-4 quarterback hasn't done that all year and doesn't plan to. Hill is just one of many reasons the Lions are off to their best mid-point start in two decades — he's been the poster boy of efficiency and decision making.
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Columbia has rapidly ascended to the top of the Ivy League standings under legendary head coach Al Bagnoli. In 2015 he was asked by the school to head up the rebuilding of the program after leading Penn to nine Ivy League titles and three undefeated seasons in 20-plus years.
Columbia has had a tough time in football for decades, and the challenge was there. Bagnoli took it on, and in three years already has the Lions' program looking up. This weekend it will face the only other undefeated Ivy — Dartmouth.
So this year's seniors — guys like Hill, and stud offensive lineman Bewley Wales and defensive stalwarts like Lord Hyeamang and Cameron Roane — they've seen it all. They came in as freshmen and endured being a part of what became a 24-game losing streak.
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Now they're a part of a 6-game winning streak dating back to the end of last year, and the school record is 8 straight — dating back to the Great Depression area of the 1930s, when the Lions actually won a Rose Bowl.
"My first year, guys were sick of (practice), and it's hard to do things well when you hate it," Hill told HERO Sports. "But now? I love coming to practice. It's the best part of my day. It's not a job or task or anything. Coach Bagnoli has helped make football fun again here. He also instilled the mindset that every game we go into, we should expect to win.
"Before, in my freshman year, if we found ourselves within 14 points at the half, we thought maybe we could get back into it. Now even if we're up 21 points at the half, we're going into the second half like it's 0-0 and we're going to win the second half, too … Now, we focus on 'what have you done for me lately'. What have you done in the last game? Nobody cares (about the losing streak) now."
As mentioned before, Hill has been one big reason why things have improved. He's ranked No. 15 in the FCS for passing yards per game (273) and his TD to INT ratio is strong (13-to-5). He also seems to get better every game. Bagnoli and Hill have both brought up the work of QB coach Ricky Santos, the former Walter Payton Award winner at New Hampshire and former Canadian Football League QB.
"I think for (Hill) it's a comfort level in the system that we're teaching," Santos told HERO Sports. "This is his first time in the same system two years in a row. Having an offseason in the same system, and having the new practice 'Bubble' put up so he could throw year-round, he's been able to throw month after month and put up 7-on-7 workouts on his own."
Wales, the warrior up front who has started 35 straight games on the O-line for the Lions, agrees.
"Let's start with what kind of guy (Hill) is," Wales told HERO Sports. "He's one of my best friends, he's a phenomenal dude and he works his ass off every day … If you want to create a guy to lead your football team? He's the guy you picture in your head."
Columbia has been one of the biggest stories in the FCS so far this year, and if the Lions can somehow keep this going just three more games — the winning, that is — they will set a school record with 9 straight victories. It hasn't been done in the nearly 150 years of the program's history.
This bunch expects nothing less.