Sept. 26, 2012

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Offensive linemen like to think of themselves as a breed apart on a football team: erudite, well-spoken, witty types who can also handle themselves in violent encounters on the field.

Consider UVa’s starting center, Luke Bowanko. He’s a 6-6, 295-pound foreign affairs major who, when he’s not battling defenders or following his beloved Baltimore Orioles, provides often-humorous insight into the lives of student-athletes at the University.

If he distinguishes himself in his off-the-field work with Dave Koehn, UVa’s play-by-play announcer and director of broadcasting, Bowanko knows, it reflects well on the offensive line.

“Gotta make my boys proud,” Bowanko said with a smile Wednesday.

A redshirt junior who starred at Centreville High in Fairfax County, Bowanko is volunteering this semester with Koehn. Bowanko writes, narrates and produces a weekly Cavalier Minute segment heard across the state on affiliates of the Virginia Sports Radio Network.

In these 60-second segments, Bowanko spotlights UVa student-athletes and teams.

“He brings a dry sense of humor, which is great,” said Koehn, who sees a little Seth Rogen in Bowanko’s style.

“I want to try to humanize our student-athletes and give people some insight into what it’s really like for them. Luke is very good at doing that. He does it with a comedic sense, which is fun. He brings some levity to it.”

Bowanko said: “I try to bring that sarcastic nature to the pieces, and and hopefully other people are catching on to it and not just thinking I’m a jerk.”

Topics he’s covered so far include the unusual pregame routine of long-snapper Matt Fortin and the car-racing exploits of linebacker Tucker Windle. For his piece on Fortin, Bowanko also interviewed Connor McCartin, a student-coach who helps with Virginia’s special teams.

“I was a little surprised, but I think Luke did a good job with it,” Fortin said. “He got a good story out of it.”

Bowanko also has had fun with segments on his roommate Paul Freedman, a senior tight end who traveled to London this summer to see UVa field hockey star Paige Selenski compete in the Olympics, and on quarterback Greyson Lambert, a true freshman who enrolled at the University in January.

“Pretty much all the stories are true stories about the guys,” Bowanko said. “If you’re just hearing about how Tucker won a driving competition, it’s blah, blah, blah. I try to bring a different approach to it, catch people’s ears and maybe get them laughing a little bit while they’re driving home from work.”

Asked about Bowanko’s interviewing style, Fortin paused to plant tongue in cheek. “He asks a lot of pressing questions. I heard he’s got a couple internships lined up with 60 Minutes and ESPN, so we’ll see what happens.”

Does Bowanko have a future in the media?

“I think he should keep his day job,” Fortin said, “but we’ll see.”

Bowanko’s predecessors in this role with Koehn include Denzel Burrell, John-Kevin Dolce and Matt Snyder (football), Monica Wright and Chelsea Shine (women’s basketball), Mustapha Farrakhan (men’s basketball) and Lindsey Hardenbergh (women’s tennis).

“Dave came up to me one day during [training] camp and asked what my interest level was,” Bowanko recalled. “I kind of knew a little bit about it, because Matt [Snyder] did it last year, and he was my roommate. So I was interested, and I went in there one day and Dave kind of showed me the ropes and gave me the baseline of what I was going to be doing.”

Ideally, Koehn said, his correspondents will generate story ideas themselves, and that’s one of Bowanko’s strengths.

“Eventually, they’re basically doing the whole thing themselves,” Koehn said.

“The first time, I will go out and conduct the interview with them, to give them an idea of how you go about interviewing, and then we come back to the studio [in Bryant Hall], and we’ll listen to the audio they got, pull out sound bites that will work, and structure it at that point. After that, we edit it and we write the script.”

Bowanko, who’s close to completing the requirements for his bachelor’s degree, proved a fast learner.

“The first time we’re doing it, his first week, I’m kind of writing the script,” Koehn said, “and he’s correcting me as I’m doing it, and I’m like, `That’s actually a pretty good point.’ That’s when I knew he was pretty bright.”

He has yet to actually hear himself on the air, Bowanko said, but another offensive lineman, Matt Mihalik, “called me the other day and said, `Luke, I just heard you on the radio. Was that real?’ That was pretty cool that he heard it.”

So far, football has dominated his Cavalier Minutes, for a simple reason. “It’s easier at this point,” Bowanko said, “with me trying to get used to this, to get guys that I’m comfortable with. But I’ve got good friends on the women’s soccer team, and I’m going to branch out to other sports.”

On the field, Bowanko is in his second year as a starter for UVa (2-2), which hosts Louisiana Tech (3-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. In 2011, though, he played right guard, next to center Anthony Mihota. With Mihota out of eligibility, the Wahoos needed a new starting center this year, and the first choice was Bowanko.

“I’m just trying to get better every week,” Bowanko said. “Every week there’s something new that I haven’t seen before, and it takes some getting used to. It’s been pretty smooth, though, for the most part, I have to say.”

Virginia finished 8-5 in 2011 after losing to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Then came two operations for Bowanko — one on each shoulder — and he wasn’t cleared for contact until this summer.

“If I had been able to participate in the spring, it definitely would have beaten a little bit of the kinks out [of the move to center],” Bowanko said, “but it is what it is, and I’m better for it, and healthy.”

That Virginia’s offensive line, with new starters at the guard spots, has struggled this season is no secret. The `Hoos are averaging only 119.5 yards per game rushing — down from 162.1 last season — and their inability to consistently move the ball on the ground has made it easier for them to defend.

“Coming into the season,” Bowanko said, “obviously we had a pretty good reputation for being able to run the ball, and teams early in the year were doing a lot of things to stop that run game. They were loading the box and moving guys and slanting guys, and all the while we’re breaking in, myself included, three new guys on the inside, and the tackles are working with new guards.

“There’s a lot of things that go into it. There’s the five of us, obviously, and then the tight ends gotta do their job, and the wide receivers gotta do their job, and the running backs gotta hit their holes.”

After rushing for only 32 yards against Penn State on Sept. 8, the Cavaliers showed modest improvement a week later when they ran for 98 at Georgia Tech. Against TCU last weekend, Virginia rushed for 164 yards, and Bowanko is confident the totals will continue to rise.

“We take pride in running the ball,” he said, “and as an offensive line, we carry that burden that if we don’t run the ball, it’s our fault. We embrace it, and I think as the year goes on, especially after last week, that’s going to happen. Guys are going to get comfortable, and the coaches are going to learn the personality of the team and what works with this team and what doesn’t work, and I think things are starting to click.”

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