|Brad Goldsberry and the rest
of the MIT senior class came in after the Engineers were 1-8 two
seasons in a row, and went through a 2-7 season as
Photo by DSPics.com
Everyone knows Whitewater and Mount Union. And even casual or new fans of Division III football have at least heard the names Wittenberg, Delaware Valley and Ithaca before.
But with two weeks of football left to play in the regular season, some names that may not be so familiar to football fans around the country are entering the postseason discussion.
Not every team that’s going to make the playoffs is ranked in the Top 25 – or is even receiving votes. What’s more, some of these teams that are now first-and-goal away from the postseason weren’t just off the radar in years past, they were scrounging for wins.
Consider MIT, which was 2-7 overall in 2011 but has grown into its 7-0 record that features the longest winning streak in school history. Sure, it took a couple of nail-biting performances in recent weeks to get to where they are, but the Engineers are now staring at the very real possibility of playing football on Nov. 22.
“When we get into these close situations, like last Saturday when Endicott took the lead, there was no flinch” from the players, said coach Chad Martinovich. “I didn’t see anybody panicking. They have confidence in each other and confidence in themselves.”
It represents a change in the school’s emphasis in the six seasons since Martinovich has been at the helm. A harder look was taken at recruiting and building depth — while trying not to sacrifice talent. And it has paid off.
“We had four or five very good recruiting classes that we’ve brought in,” he said. “We’ve added depth and talent at just about every position — perhaps more stress on the depth part.”
The formula isn’t a foreign one for a team looking to rebound. Something drastic has to happen for a one- or two-win program to become a competitor. Sometimes what’s affected is the philosophy woven into team or the school administration’s support or the nonconference scheduling choices. Sometimes it’s more blunt and simple, like a coaching change.
Ultimately, the status quo has to go.
At MIT, Martinovich is at a point where the players he recruited early on are now seniors with three or four years of starting experience. Quarterback Peter Williams and rusher/receiver Brad Goldsberry are in their second year as captains, joined by four others as the top leaders on the team.
When Martinovich took over the Engineers, he said the average roster size was fewer than 50 players; now they have 81. He said he doesn’t remember dressing more than 35 players for any game his first year.
The growth has taken place in an environment that is conducive to student-athletes. Martinovich said that 25 percent of MIT’s undergraduate population consists of varsity athletes. That kind of support structure has helped.
“When we as a staff go out to work camps, now kids seek us out,” Martinovich said. “When I first got here, if I went to a camp to look at high school players, a lot of times the response I got was: I didn’t know MIT has a football program.”
MIT is far from the only team to have seen its fortunes improve in recent years. Husson, St. Lawrence and Lakeland are among others that struggled just a couple of years ago but have postseason potential in 2014.
Like Martinovich, Mark Raymond at St. Lawrence is five years in and is seeing some of the players he recruited mature and become veteran playmakers for the team. The Saints are 7-1 overall this year, while being 5-0 in Liberty League play ahead of a showdown with No. 7 Hobart on Saturday.
Two years ago, St. Lawrence went 0-10.
“Recordwise it was a turnaround,” Raymond said, “but we were also at a point where we were starting to build a good foundation for the team. We had some really good young players who were growing up.”
In 2010, Raymond’s first year, St. Lawrence won the conference despite losing two Liberty games and getting swept in nonconference play. They were 5-5 heading into the postseason, the only team with such a record to compete in the Division III playoffs.
This year has been far different and mirrors more the 7-3 finish the team saw last season.
The seasons in between were tough, though.
“You always question what you’re doing when you’re struggling, and [you] try to find answers,” the coach said. He credits the players who “never wavered. They continued to work, believe in each other and stay the course.”
Quarterback Mike Lefflbine and defenders Alec Dietsch, James Holley-Grisha and Chyra Brown-Wallace have been critical to getting the team to where it is today.
“To have success, you have to have good players, and we’re fortunate to have them,” Raymond said.
Come to think of it, there’s probably more to the turnaround formula than just change. There’s a level of drive and commitment needed to execute a successful season.
MIT’s Martinovich puts it best: “A lot of hard work, a lot of trial and error, and the rest has kind of fallen into place.”