November 16, 2012

A second senior season

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As Mitch McClune lay in the hospital waiting to undergo surgery to reconstruct the lower part of his left leg, he wrestled with the more painful realization that his days of college football might be over.

All of the hard work, all of the practices, all of the sacrifices over the previous three years, only to have his senior season end in the third quarter of WPI's first game. McClune, playing his first game at safety, broke his fibula and dislocated his ankle simultaneously on a gruesome non-contact injury in the season opener against Merrimack.

That was Sept. 3, 2011. On Oct. 27, 2012, just more than one year removed the career-threatening injury, McClune set a school record with four interceptions, this time as a cornerback.

The only motivation McClune needed to come back was the person on the sidelines watching him during that record-setting game -- his older brother, Matt. Mitch always looked up to Matt, as any younger brother does. But it was a car accident on Oct. 25, 2009, that forever changed Matt's life, and by association, his brother's.

Matt was making the 20-minute daily commute down Route 93 south from Boston to Norwell, Mass., where he served as a personal trainer at a local gym. It was an otherwise nondescript Sunday morning. But in a split second, Matt's truck struck an uncovered pothole left in the road from recent construction. The hole, which Mitch said was a foot or two deep, was enough to cause Matt to lose control of the truck.

It spun twice across the highway before flipping side over side three times. During one of those rotations, Matt was ejected from the truck. The sheer force of the impact with the concrete broke Matt's neck in three places.

Matt was placed in an induced coma for a few weeks and forced to undergo multiple surgeries. When Matt finally emerged from that nightmare, the 27-year-old former fullback at Sacred Heart was left confined to a wheelchair.

"He's paralyzed from the chest down," Mitch said. "But he's doing better now. He's still training [and] working people out, he's just doing it sitting down."

Matt's recovery is nothing short of amazing. He now lives on his own and is getting settled into a house in Braintree, Mass. He still trains at the same gym. But it might be the impact he's had on his younger brother, something that's impossible to quantify or measure, that is most impressive.

Mitch still credits the turning point in both his football career and his brother's professional career to the summer the two spent training together in 2007. Matt had graduated from Sacred Heart and was still trying to carve his professional niche. Mitch was preparing for his senior season at Boston College High School. Matt's hands-on football and workout instruction put Mitch ahead of the curve on the field, while at the same time convincing him to become a personal trainer.

Matt wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty as a fullback. Mitch adopted that same attitude at WPI, where he played offense, defense and special teams. Mitch spent his first three seasons primarily as a running back, Wildcat player and kick and punt returner. But when coach Chris Robertson asked him to consider shifting to safety for his senior season because the team lacked depth, Mitch didn't have to think twice.

"I just love football in general," Mitch said. "It really doesn't matter where I was playing as long as I was playing the game. It didn't really matter to me."

His first go-round as a safety lasted just two quarters, because of the injury. But Mitch returned for a fifth year this season and saw time at safety, cornerback and even outside linebacker. He finished fifth on the team with 47 tackles and led the team in interceptions (four) and passes defensed (eight). He was also the team's top kick and punt returner.

"He's one of those guys that he's always had this level of maturity, he's never complained, he's never made an excuse," Robertson said. "As a coach you love him because he's not going to question what you're asking him to do. He's going to take what you want him to do and he's going to do it better than anybody else."

Robertson, then coaching at Salve Regina, first spoke to Mitch when he was in high school. He knew the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Mitch would be a key contributor when he arrived as WPI's coach in 2010.

"I would imagine that his heart is almost as big as his body," Robertson said. "He is tough. He is a quiet, ferocious competitor."

Mitch's four-interception game garnered him the Gold Helmet, an award bestowed upon one Division I player and Division II or III player in New England each week. The award is considered the top individual honor a New England college football player can achieve. To put it in perspective, Robertson estimates Mitch is just the fourth WPI player to win it since 1997.

That was also the last game Matt saw Mitch play.

"It was a good way to send him out," Mitch said. "... I probably could have had five [interceptions]. There was one play where I didn't get my head around quick enough and they completed one. It kind of stays with you. Four's good, but five would have been better."

Mitch, who will graduate next spring with a master's degree in mechanical engineering through WPI's five-year master's program, is also a standout right fielder on the baseball team. He was able to play last spring, though he admits he wasn't 100 percent after having the screws removed from his leg only in December. Mitch started running again in January, and he was with the baseball team for the start of the season. Mitch said he couldn't stand the thought of being robbed another chance to finish out a true senior season with his classmates.

Mitch might also follow in the steps of his father, who served in the Navy. Mitch has applied for Officer Candidate School in the U.S. Air Force. He's expecting to hear if he's accepted sometime in early December. If he is, Mitch would start over the summer after graduating from WPI.

Robertson, who pointed out that Mitch played with cracked ribs this season and never said a word, said Mitch will make the "perfect soldier."

"We got beat up this weekend by Springfield," Robertson said. "You know what? Fourth quarter, you watch him play, you wouldn't be able to tell."

Whatever Mitch does, he'll do it with full effort and thoroughness. That's how Matt taught him, after all.

Playoff reaction: Four home games on tap

There weren't any surprises, as it pertains to the East region, come Selection Sunday. 

Conference champions Salisbury (E8), Widener (MAC), Cortland State (NJAC) and Hobart (LL) were all assured of playoff berths. Rowan was as safe a bet as possible when it comes to Pool C bids. And that was it. The only other two-loss team in the region was Lycoming.

The playoff field is set and it includes five East teams playing in four games this Saturday. Here's my quick take on all of them:

Mount Union bracket

Rowan (7-2) at Salisbury (8-2), noon, Saturday: No surprise to see Salisbury at home here. What that means for Rowan, however, is that a tough game lies ahead. The Sea Gulls have only lost at home three times in the last three seasons, and two of those came against Wesley. Salisbury boasts one of the best triple-option offensive attacks in the country. Rowan is hot though, and enters the playoffs on a two-game shutout streak. The Profs blanked TCNJ 26-0 in the regular-season finale to secure their playoff bid. Quarterback Louie Bianchini drives the Rowan offense, but the team also features a balanced rushing attack. Rowan's ball-hawking defense also has 16 interceptions in nine games this season. Salisbury's history at home and consecutive Empire 8 championships earn the Sea Gulls the right to be called favorites in this game, but Rowan will put up a fight. Expect a close game here.

Bridgewater State (9-1) at Widener (9-0), noon, Saturday: Widener will be making its first NCAA appearance since 2007, and will play be playing in its first home playoff game since 2001. The Pride has never faced Bridgewater State, but it will quickly learn the Bears like to run the ball. Through 10 games, Bridgewater State has out-rushed its opponents 2,372 yards to 974. The Bears, who are making their first playoff appearance since 2000, have been fairly stout defending the pass this season too, an area where the Chris Haupt-led Pride have dominated. This matchup is certainly a contrast in styles. In a case like this, I'm usually apt to take the home team. The winner advances to face the Rowan-Salisbury winner. 

Mary Hardin-Baylor bracket

Framingham State (10-1) at Cortland State (8-1), noon, Saturday: Cortland State is making its third NCAA appearance in the last five seasons, while Framingham State is making its first appearance in school history. Give the experience advantage to Cortland. But the Rams defeated Salve Regina in the NEFC championship game to clinch the playoff spot, so they are somewhat battle-tested. Melikke Van Alstyne (1,563 rushing yards, 16 TDs) is the driving force of the offense. If the Red Dragons can slow him down, they can disrupt the Rams' offense. Cortland boasts a three-headed rushing attack behind Dorian Myles, Bronson Greene and Justin Autera, but quarterback Chris Rose has been brilliant at times this season. Ultimately, the matchup to watch here is Cortland's defense against Van Alstyne and the Rams' rushing attack.

St. Thomas bracket

Washington and Lee (8-2) at Hobart (10-0), noon, Saturday: The Liberty League didn't exactly dominate as a conference this season, but it did produce one of the most physically dominant teams in the country. Hobart, making its second consecutive postseason appearance, ranks fifth in the country in total defense and 14th in rushing defense. This will be key considering the Generals lead the country in rushing offense, piling up an average of 381.3 yards per game. Hobart isn't too shabby itself in the running game, ranking 24th in the country with 237.5 yards per game. This contest, the first ever between the two schools, figures to be a hard-fought, run-oriented battle. Washington and Lee won the ODAC and clinched the automatic playoff bid for the second time in three seasons.

For more info, check out the playoff team capsules: http://d3football.com/playoffs/2012/bracket-umhb

Check out the complete bracket here: http://d3football.com/playoffs/2012/bracket

And play the free bracket challenge: http://www.d3photography.com/bracket_challenge/

ECAC slate: Alfred, Springfield to play

As it turns out, Alfred and Springfield seemingly can't avoid playing each other.

The Pride will host the former Empire 8 rival Saxons in the ECAC Northeast Bowl Championship (noon, Saturday). Alfred owns a 6-2 overall mark in the series, including a 30-22 win in last season's matchup. Springfield finished the season strong, winning its final four games. Freshman quarterback Jonathan Marrero has been nothing short of spectacular this season.

Other ECAC games featuring East teams:

South Atlantic Bowl Championship: Delaware Valley (7-3) at Muhlenberg (8-2), noon, Saturday

Southeast Bowl Championship: Albright (7-3) at Franklin and Marshall (7-3), noon, Saturday

Northwest Bowl Championship: Castleston State at St. John Fisher (7-3), 1 p.m., Saturday

Top 25: Hobart, Widener lead the way

Hobart climbed one spot to No. 7 and Widener held steady at No. 9 in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll, the final poll of the regular season.

Salisbury remained at No. 11, while Cortland State rose one spot to No. 18.

Rowan broke back into the rankings, checking in at No. 25.

Quick hits

Cortland State stopped Clay Ardoin on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line to secure a 16-10 win over Ithaca and earn its third straight Cortaca Jug victory. ... Connor Eck connected with Kyle Reynolds on a 31-yard touchdown in overtime as Union defeated RPI 34-28 to win its second straight Dutchmen Shoes Trophy game. ... Parker Showers rushed for 188 yards and two scores and Craig Needhammer added 95 yards and two TDs as Lycoming routed Misericordia 38-0. ... Maleke Fuentes rushed for 143 yards and four touchdowns as Alfred pounded Hartwick 30-13. ... John Schubert's 27-yard field goal in the fourth quarter was the difference as Montclair State notched a 10-7 win vs. Kean. ... Ryan Kramer passed for 260 yards and four touchdowns and Zach Dolan returned one of his two interceptions 65 yards for a score in St. John Fisher's 55-20 win against Utica. ... Zach Groff rushed for 105 yards and Marty Reinhardt had a pair of one-yard touchdown plunges in Albright's 26-14 win vs. Lebanon Valley. Josh Borreli returned an interception 100 yards for a score in the loss for Lebanon Valley. ... Springfield beat WPI 62-23 behind Joel Altavesta's 168 rushing yards and three TDs. ... Joe Scibilia shredded Morrisville State to the tune of 330 yards and five TDs in Brockport State's 49-21 win. Tyrone Nichols added 162 rushing yards and two scores, while Jake Spalik caught 10 passes for 140 yards and two scores in the season-ending win. ... Patrick Ingulli rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown as Wilkes defeated King's 44-32 for its third straight Mayor's Cup victory. ... Alex Coviello rushed for 141 yards and threw two TDs as Merchant Marine topped St. Lawrence 33-12 to win the Hoffman Cup. Merchant Marine closed out the season at 5-5, its best record since 2003. ... K.K. Smith gouged FDU-Florham's defense for 251 yards and three scores on the ground as Stevenson rolled to a 28-13 win in the season finale. ... Isaac Jlaka rushed for 198 yards and a pair of TDs as William Paterson beat Western Connecticut 37-16. ... William Paterson and FDU-Florham, two schools who lost games on Nov. 3 because of Hurricane Sandy, have agreed to a non-conference this Friday night at 7 p.m. in Madison, N.J.

Thank you/contact me
Handling the Around the East column duties for a second straight season has been an honor and a privilege. If you've read the column at any point this season, thank you. If you've emailed me with positive feedback, a critique, or just simply to chat about D-III football, thank you. Enjoy the playoffs and keep in touch. Drop me a line at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com or send me a tweet (@Andrew_Lovell).

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