The University of Connecticut football program has been on an upswing as of late.
This year's appearance in the Papajohns.com Bowl will mark the third time in as many years that Randy Edsall's squad has been invited to play in the postseason. It marks the first time in school history that the program has ever accomplished that feat.
Two local student-athletes have seen the success first hand. Marian High School graduate Mike Ryan and Lehighton High School Robbie Frey have attended UConn since the beginning of the streak in 2007. Both have played a big role in this year's run which has culminated in a January bowl game.
"I think we have played pretty well as a team this year," said Ryan, who starts at offensive tackle for the Huskies. "All of our losses have been so close. Not being able to finish against Cincinnati (a 47-45 loss) hurt a lot, but fortunately we were still able to bounce back from that to win our last three games and make it to a bowl game.
"We've made it to a bowl game the last three years – which is something the program has never done before. But it's just business as usual for us. We will be playing a SEC team in South Carolina. Most people consider the SEC the best conference in the country, so we will be trying to prove that we can handle a team like that."
The red-shirt sophomore saw his first action against Baylor on Sept. 19. Then, after the Rhode Island game a week later, he started every game from there on out. His first official start came against Pittsburgh on Oct. 10 in the Huskies' fifth game of the season.
"My first start was against Pitt, who had one of the best defensive lines in the country," recalled Ryan. "It was a little nerve racking to say the least. I gave up a sack in the game, but it is definitely something I learned from. All this experience will only help me in the future."
Frey, the former standout running back for the Indians, will accompany the Huskies to Birmingham but will not play due to a season-ending injury he suffered on Oct. 31 against Rutgers. Frey returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the game – which tied a record for the longest return in school history. He would go on to set a new career-high in kickoff return yards with three returns for 163 yards in the game.
Unfortunately for Frey, the excitement was short lived. On the very next kickoff he would receive for the touchdown, Frey tore his labrum and was later ruled out for the rest of the year.
Still, there was no arguing Frey's impact on the team before the injury. His 29.5-yard kick return average ranked him second in the Big East amongst players with at least 12 returns. He got in as a running back in only one game – a 52-10 victory over Rhode Island - but did manage to score touchdowns of 13 and 54 yards in the game.
Frey was unable to be reached for a comment, but Ryan mentioned how the two have become good friends.
"I didn't really know much about Robbie until we both committed to UConn following our senior seasons in high school," Ryan said. "I played against him a couple of times while we were in high school, but we never really talked to each other.
"Now, through this whole process, we have become close friends. [Offensive lineman] Gary Bardzak [from Pottsville High School] is another person from the area who we're good friends with. A lot of things have happened this year, including Jasper Howard's death, and I think it has brought everyone a little closer together."
It has been an interesting and emotional season for the UConn football team to say the least. The team had seven wins and is playing in another bowl game. On the other hand, their five losses came by a combined 15 points. The sudden and tragic death of a teammate only added to the up-and-down season.
Regardless of what has happened thus far, the Huskies will suit up for one last time today with hopes of ending their season on a positive note.
"To win any game at this level is big," said Ryan. "But with everything that has happened this year – this is going to be a big challenge.
"The Notre Dame win was huge, but to be able to get a win in Alabama against South Carolina would be big for the entire program."