Football Ready For Run At Fourth Conference Title
How hard was the 2001 season for traditional college football powers? Penn State and Notre Dame both started 0-3 and ended up with losing records. Springfield College, which has won three Freedom Football Conference championships since 1996 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances in four seasons, suffered four losses by a total of 10 points on its way to a 4-5 record. Like its Division I cohorts, however, the Pride will be back in 2002.
“It’s certainly a sore point with us,” said head coach Mike DeLong ’74 of his team’s struggles last season. “We were in every game, but we made mistakes and found a way to lose those close ones.”
The 109th edition of Springfield College football features veteran presences on both sides of the ball, including one of the region’s best defensive fronts. Eight starters are back on the offense, which features electric split end/kick returner Luke Quigley, and seven defensive starters return. DeLong, who enters his 19th season as head coach at his alma mater, hopes his team can build on a 49-35 upset of then 16th-ranked Union in Schnectady, N.Y., in the final game of the 2001 season.
“We must continue to improve on defense. We were very good last season, and we need to keep getting better,” DeLong explained. “Obviously, our offensive production fell off a great deal last season. We need better production from our skill position players, especially the quarterbacks and fullbacks. Many of them had a taste of college football for the first time last season and showed great potential, especially in the Union game.”
Despite an unsettled situation in the backfield resulting from early-season injuries to all-conference halfback Bob Sedlor, fullback Matt Bourque, and quarterbacks Craig Bowman and Matt Botta, SC maintained its reputation as one of the most potent rushing offenses in the nation in 2001. The Pride led the FFC and finished sixth nationally in rushing (278.7 yards-per-game). SC was 4-1 in games when it rushed for 300 yards-or-more.
Defensively, the Pride went into the final week of the season ranked seventh nationally in total defense, and placed at the top of the conference in four categories. SC held six of its opponents to 17 points-or-less, including high-powered offenses such as Ithaca and Western Connecticut.
Last season, the Pride opened camp with five quarterbacks that threw a total of one pass between them vying for the starting nod. Not so this season. DeLong turns to three veteran quarterbacks that all have game experience.
“The quarterback has to set the tone for the offense, and we are fortunate that we’ve got some guys that have played at this level,” DeLong said. “That’s something we didn’t have going to into last year and it really hurt.”
After a spectacular effort at nationally ranked Union, sophomore Michael Judge enters camp at the top of the depth chart. He rushed for two touchdowns and threw for two more to lead SC to the 14-point victory.
“I feel good about Mike, especially after his performance in the Union game,” DeLong said. “He’s a strong all-around player and his decision making has improved.”
The emergence of Ryan Sylvia, another sophomore, was one of last season’s surprises. Inconsistent play and injuries to his teammates elevated him to the top of the depth chart. Sylvia’s first action of the season came against No. 21 Ithaca (Sept. 29), and he responded by scoring two touchdowns. He was named FFC Rookie of the Week twice last season, rushing for 492 yards and six touchdowns, and throwing for 190 yards and a score.
“Ryan is a terrific athlete; a strong, tough kid. He made some big plays for us,” DeLong said. If Sylvia continues to play consistently, especially in the passing game, he will be a major factor in 2002.
Senior Craig Bowman suffered a season-ending injury when he broke his jaw in a scrimmage against Westfield State last August. Bowman, who had won the starting job after a strong showing in camp, served as a back-up to record-setting signal-caller Kevin Cahill in 2000 and played on the junior varsity in 1999. Bowman saw action in five games in the 2000 season, averaging 9.7 yards-per-carry and scoring two touchdowns.
“Craig did a great job in camp last summer, and he will get another opportunity to win the job this season,” DeLong said.
Last season’s situation at fullback was a revolving door with three players starting.
“We need to get more production from our fullbacks, so we’ll be making some moves there,” DeLong said.
Sophomore Will Davis could shift from halfback to fullback this season. Davis averaged 6.4 yards-per-carry in limited action a year ago. DeLong is also impressed by sophomore Tim Lutgens, who played on the junior varsity in 2000.
“They are comparable in that neither is very big, but they are the type of backs that will make tacklers miss,” DeLong explained. “Between the two of them, we should be in pretty good shape.”
Juniors Dave Pardue and Ari Selig are also in the mix.
DeLong expects a lot of production from his tailbacks, who have traditionally averaged close to 100 yards-per-game. “It’s an interesting but inexperienced group led by Dustin Grosso. There are a lot of options,” DeLong said.
Grosso, a senior who has averaged 4.7 yards-per-carry over the last two seasons, broke into the starting line-up in 2001, rushing for 138 yards and one touchdown in seven games.
“We’ll look for Dustin to make up what we’ve lost with the graduation of Sedlor,” DeLong explained. “He’s an explosive runner with good instincts.”
Will Davis, along with promising sophomores Kevin Domurat and Dan Veinot will push for time. The coaching staff may experiment with giving Luke Quigley some repetitions at halfback during camp.
“He’s an exciting player who can play in a lot of different spots,” DeLong said. “Luke makes things happen. We need to get the ball in his hands.”
Quigley, who has started at split end since 2000, is one of the conference’s most dangerous players. A two-time FFC Special Teams Player of the Week and an All-New England selection last season as a split end and kick returner, he averaged 19.4 yards-per-catch and 7.4 yards-per rush. Quigley ranked second in the FFC in punt return yardage (11.1) and kick-off return yardage (22.7). On the opening kick-off of the 2001 season at UMass-Dartmouth (Sept. 8), he raced 85 yards for a touchdown, and he took a punt 72 yards for a score in the Pride’s 47-20 win over WPI (Oct. 20).
Juniors D. J. Bruni and Nate Ingram will vie for time, as well.
Even if Quigley moves to halfback, the Pride is set at split end. Senior Jay Curtis is a veteran pass catcher with a knack for making things happen. He’s averaged 34.6 yards-per-catch in three seasons in the Maroon and White, and he has caught touchdown passes of 50 and 52 yards.
“Jay is an outstanding athlete with good size and speed. He has made some big plays for us,” DeLong said.
Junior Farrand Violette, who was behind Quigley on the depth chart last season, is a versatile talent that he may move to the secondary. Senior Jim Kramer and juniors Cory Langone, Marcus Sheftall and Jackson Browne round out this strong group of split ends.
DeLong characterizes the tight end position as “pretty solid” with senior Jeff Barry and sophomore Brian Dewey returning. Barry has been the starter for the past two seasons, while Dewey has impressed the coaching staff. He is a possibility at several different spots.
Despite losing all-region center Kevin Vacca, the SC offensive line should again be a strong point. Last season, the Pride allowed a league-low eight sacks.
“We’ve got seven guys back, including four starters,” DeLong stated. “They are an experienced group that knows how to play and how to practice.”
The left side of the line is anchored by seniors Andrew MacFadyen and Carl Mintken. MacFadyen, a team co-captain, has started at guard for the better part of two seasons. Mintken, who came to SC as a defensive lineman, broke into the starting line-up at left tackle in 2000. Junior center Nick Assermelly, the Pride’s long-snapper, will get the first shot to fill Vacca’s shoes. On the right side, Ben Bristol, a three-year starter at tackle, and senior Matt Fritze, who started six games last season, return. Seniors Chris D’Aniello, a guard, and Stephen Holt, a tackle, were major contributors last season.
Though its offense was uncharacteristically inconsistent in 2001, the Pride’s defense was relentless. SC yielded an average of 12.6 points-per-game in six FFC games, and held the top two scoring teams in the conference, Plymouth State and Western Conn., to its lowest point totals of the season. Even Ithaca, which averaged 38.4 points per game, could only manage 17 points against the Pride. With six starters back in its 3-4 set, SC won’t miss a beat.
“This might be the most talented front seven we’ve had since I’ve been here,” DeLong explained. “It’s a group of hard-nosed players that possess size, strength and speed.”
Seniors Dwayne Robinson and Jay Raifstanger are two of the biggest playmakers in recent memory. Robinson, an all-conference selection in 2000, has 26 tackles-for-loss and 12 sacks over the past two seasons. Raifstanger, who was selected to the All-FFC second team last season, led the Pride with 14 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks. DeLong plans to use the versatile duo at defensive end or at outside linebacker, where they are both equally effective.
Senior Jim Galliher and junior Jason MacDonald are an imposing pair at defensive end. Galliher is a three-year starter who registered eight sacks as a sophomore in 2000, and four tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks last season despite missing time with injuries. MacDonald should build on a very strong sophomore campaign that saw him make six tackles-for-loss and two sacks.
Sophomores Michael Potenza and Mark Bartelini will contribute at defensive end.
The Pride is also established on the interior with sophomores Brian McClellan and Tom Attanasio. McClellan broke into the starting line-up at defensive end last season, where he had six tackles-for-loss and a sack. Attanasio gained valuable experience backing up all-conference tackle Dan Nichol in 2001.
All-conference inside linebacker Jesse Baker, a senior co-captain, headlines a deep linebacking corps. The three-year starter led the Pride in tackles for the second time in three seasons with 85 to go along with eight tackles-for-loss and two interceptions. Junior inside linebacker Dan Lyons is coming off a tremendous sophomore season. He was everywhere in 2001, finishing second on the team in interceptions (four) and third in tackles (56) and tackles-for-loss (11). Steve Skakum, a junior, can play on the inside or outside. He had a productive sophomore campaign, making 12 tackles. Junior Jeff Schmidt and sophomore Brett Cardillo are solid reserves.
DeLong has a lot of options at outside linebacker. Robinson and Raifstanger are among the best in New England. Sophomore Michael Clark will move from strong safety to outside linebacker. Senior Adam Cowell, who lost last season to an injury during camp, was a valuable contributor in 2000 (18 tackles, one sack). Sophomore Jason Chew, a transfer from Division II Southern Connecticut State, and Curtis Schmidt, also a sophomore, will push for time.
The secondary is a major concern. The Pride lost all-conference players in free safety Jason Perkins (16 career interceptions) and cornerback Thomas Allen (five interceptions in 2001), as well as strong safety Kyle Gulino (69 tackles, seven tackles-for loss in 2001) to graduation.
“A lot of our opponents can hurt you by throwing the ball, so there are questions that need to be answered in camp,” DeLong said.
Senior Ryan Santo, the lone returning starter in the secondary, will replace Gulino at strong safety. Santo, an excellent defender, finished fourth on the team with three interceptions and ninth with 24 tackles as a cornerback last season. Sophomore David Jenkerson is also in the mix.
At free safety, Jeremiah Goodnow, a very athletic sophomore who has seen limited action, is penciled in for a starting spot.
A healthy Mike Capotosto would alleviate some of the worry. The senior corner, who started five games, made three interceptions and broke up six passes, hopes to bounce back from a debilitating knee injury. Junior Mike Kimmel, who logged playing time in 2001 as a reserve behind Santo, and junior Chris Teel, who did not play last season, are expected to challenge for a starting spot.
Quigley, who has amassed nearly 1,400 yards and three touchdowns as a return man at SC, is one of the best return men in Division III. DeLong is confident that someone will emerge out of a strong group of skill position players to team with Quigley on kick-offs.
Dan Veinot took over the punting duties in late September. He averaged 32.8 yards-per-punt and placed seven kicks inside the 20-yard line. Junior Greg Switaj, a three-year starter, was 22-of-26 on point-after attempts and hit two of three field goals attempts from 30 yards or longer.
Three of the Pride’s 2002 opponents reached the post-season a year ago. Two of the first three games are at Benedum Field, however, which is a welcome change after playing four of the first five away from home last fall.
In the season opener on Sept. 6, Salve Regina visits Benedum for a non-conference contest at 7 p.m. It’s the first meeting ever with the Seahawks, who are traditionally one of the strongest teams in the New England Football Conference. SC opens the FFC schedule at Kings Point (Sept. 21) before facing Coast Guard at home (Sept. 28). The Pride hits the road for its annual battle with Ithaca (Oct. 5). SC will be looking to avenge a heartbreaking 17-16 loss to the Bombers in its home opener last season. In a game that traditionally decides the balance of power in the FFC, Western Connecticut, the defending conference champions, travels to SC for a Friday night showdown (Oct. 11). Last season, the Colonials held off the Pride, 9-7, in Danbury, Conn., en route to the conference crown. In 2000, it was SC outlasting Western Connecticut, 43-36, in a wild shootout under the lights of Benedum Field. Another key FFC tilt looms the following week as Plymouth State comes to Springfield (Oct. 19). After road trips to WPI (Oct. 26) and rapidly improving Norwich (Nov. 9), the Pride gears up for a home game with Union (Nov. 16), which is still smarting from its loss to SC that knocked the Dutchmen out of the NCAA Tournament.
If recent history is any indication, then the 2002 season shapes up to be a very successful one. The last two times the Pride suffered through a losing season, SC won the conference title and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament the following fall.
There are numerous factors working in SC’s favor: 15 returning starters, experience on the offensive and defensive lines and at quarterback, and playing the critical conference games at home. There is also an intangible factor: no one wants a repeat of last season.
“We were very frustrated with our performance in 2001, and we made a commitment to get better,” DeLong stated. “The players followed through and did a good job. We had a very strong off-season in the weight room and in the classroom.”
The Pride is back.