October 31, 2013

Glad to be back

More news about: Merchant Marine
Matt McDaniels was one of Division III's leading rushers when the shutdown came.
Merchant Marine athletics photo 

Mike Toop is no stranger to challenges. As a college football coach, he rarely encounters a day without them.

These challenges can take any number of forms -- injuries, weather, a tough opponent. No one ever said a coach's job was boring.

But this season presented Toop and his players at the United States Merchant Marine Academy with a challenge none of them had ever faced. A challenge made infinitely more discouraging because it was entirely out of their control.

The U.S. federal government shutdown lasted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 16, a 16-day span that wiped out Merchant Marine's games against Liberty League foes RPI, Rochester and Springfield. This year's shutdown was the first since a 21-day layoff between 1995 and 1996.

Toop, a 1977 Merchant Marine graduate in his ninth year as the team's coach, hasn't hid his dissatisfaction and disappointment.

"It's pretty disappointing when the government deems that we're not essential, and the other service academies are," Toop said. "... That's really tough to tell college-aged men and women that, hey, we can't stay open because of political in-fighting, and that's basically what it [was]."

Division I programs Army, Air Force and Navy, as well as Division III's Coast Guard did not miss any games. The Mariners lost their first three games in October, but finally returned with a 26-14 win against WPI this past Saturday.

The game against RPI, originally scheduled for Oct. 5, will be played this Saturday. RPI had a bye this Saturday, and the layoff pushed back Merchant Marine's academic calendar, which originally had final exams slated for this week. The Rochester and Springfield games remain long shots, although one could get made up the week following the regular season if the teams agree to do so.

Injuries can be overcome and opponents can be game-planned for. But Toop and his coaching staff had no course of action for a government shutdown.

Toop pulled his players together on Sunday, Sept. 29 as the deadline drew closer, explaining the harsh reality of the situation. Shortly after that, the official letters arrived from Washington, D.C., informing the coaches they would be among roughly 800,000 federal employees to be indefinitely furloughed.

Toop said his first reaction was a sentiment shared by the rest of his coaching staff -- they would volunteer to coach the players for free. That notion was quickly shot down.

"We're in it for the kids," Toop said. "And we were told government law stipulates that we weren't allowed to volunteer."

At this point, the players were on their own. No coaches, no trainers, no supervision. The team still organized its own practices for the first week of the shutdown. But that only lasted briefly as all students -- athletes included -- were sent home until the shutdown was lifted.

For players like senior Ben Runchey, the team's starting left guard, this was a worst nightmare.

"It was really hard sitting at home on Saturdays watching college football and seeing all the scores," Runchey said.

Runchey, an Ohio native, kept busy by working out at his local high school. Merchant Marine has players from as far west as Montana, California and Washington, so many stayed with teammates on the East Coast.

"It was worse than we thought, missing three games," Runchey said. "We thought maybe it'd last a week, but that wasn't the case."

Merchant Marine's players already face unique challenges that other college football players don't. As sophomores, players are at sea for four months during the second of the academy's three trimesters. As juniors, they are at sea for the second and third trimesters. Before they graduate, every player will spend 300 days on commercial vessels.

"After our last football game, I won't see next year's seniors until they come back for classes, and we start classes the last week in July," Toop said.

That's a difficult transition, but also just a reality of playing football at Merchant Marine. Toop said the current senior class came back ready to roll this past summer.

"It's tough to put a bar on your back in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the winter when there's 35-foot seas rolling around," Toop said. "It's tough to do squats. But these guys found a way to get it done. They came back and they were really committed."

When the Mariners have been able to take the field, the results have been promising. The team has won four of its five games and needs just one more victory to clinch its first winning season since 2003. A defense led by four senior linebackers, key seniors on the defensive linemen and senior safety Tyler Washington is allowing less than 300 yards per game, good for 41st in the country. And an option offense led by sophomore quarterback Matt McDaniels ranks 11th nationally with 285.2 rushing yards per game.

Barring any further setbacks, Merchant Marine should finish this season with eight games played. It's certainly not ideal, considering the team started the season with 10 games on the schedule. But with the support of the Liberty League and the other member schools, Merchant Marine has faced this challenge.

"Your whole goal as a coach, at least for me philosophically, is you dedicate everything to your senior class," Toop said. "We've always thought, 'Well, we only have 10 at-bats left for those guys.' They have 10 games and you turn around and they're taking three away from you ... you're taking opportunities."

The Mariners get back one of those opportunities this weekend. And instead of worrying about furloughs and funding gaps, the players will be pleased only to have to worry about things like blocking assignments and coverage schemes.

Ithaca snaps skid vs. St. John Fisher

Ithaca entered Saturday's game against St. John Fisher riding a seven-game losing streak in the series, a skid that dated back to 2005. The Bombers were also lining up with backups at quarterback and running back.

So, naturally, Ithaca pulled out a 25-22 win, ending the skid and firmly entrenching itself as a legitimate Empire 8 contender. 

Quarterback Tom Dempsey, making his third straight start in place of an injured Phil Neumann, completed 20 of 27 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown. Evan Skea, a freshman who last week played on the JV team, rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown in place of Rakim Jones.

And in a game full of unsung heroes, perhaps it was Ithaca's kicking duo that played the biggest role. Garrett Nicholson connected on field goals of 27 and 24 yards, while Max Rottenecker, the team's long kick specialist, connected from 35 and 41 yards. Ithaca also forced five turnovers, including interceptions by Will Carter and Mike Vulcano. The win also was the 150th for longtime coach Mike Welch. 

This was a strong win for a program that, in recent years, had seemed to be treading water. Ithaca hosts Frostburg State this weekend and, with a win, would eclipse last season's win total. A road matchup with Salisbury in two weeks looms large.

King's upsets Delaware Valley

Everyone does it. When they get a sports schedule, they run through it and check off wins and losses as they see playing it out. We're all guilty of it.

For the better part of the last decade, Delaware Valley fans have been able to predict a win against King's. The Aggies had won nine straight in the series, including the last seven by double digits.

But streaks, as they say, are meant to be broken. King's defeated Delaware Valley 21-14 in overtime this past Saturday, snapping its long streak and putting a serious dent in the Aggies' MAC title hopes.

Tom Hehre and Kyle McGrath each rushed for touchdowns, with McGrath's coming on the first possession in overtime to clinch the win. DelVal quarterback Charlie Martarella completed only eight of his 21 passes for 88 yards and three interceptions in place of Aaron Wilmer. Kyle Scuberth rushed for 188 yards for the Aggies, but the team's four turnovers hurt them. 

King's has now won four straight after opening the loss with three consecutive losses. The four wins stand as the team's most since it went 6-5 in 2006. The Monarchs finish with games against Lycoming, Widener and Wilkes, all difficult conference matchups. But a win over DelVal is a solid one to build off of.

Brockport State quietly hanging around

It hasn't been a great for the NJAC. But Brockport State isn't looking for style points.

The Golden Eagles defeated a struggling Kean team, 17-7, for their third straight win in conference play. Their 3-1 mark in the NJAC leaves them just a half-game behind leader Cortland State, the same team Brockport defeated just two weeks away.

Saturday's win over Kean wasn't pretty, but again, style points aren't in effect here. Shireem Cobb rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown, and Dan Andrews added 68 yards and another touchdown on the ground as the Golden Eagles dominated the time of possession battle.

But it was defensively where Brockport sealed this win. Kean managed to convert just two of its 14 third-down conversions and didn't put up points until late in the fourth quarter. That's big-time production, no matter how badly the opposition has struggled all season.

The Golden Eagles have solid wins in hand over Cortland State and Lycoming out of the MAC. And the final three-game stretch of their schedule sets up nicely for a run at the NJAC title. After a road game at TCNJ, Brockport hosts Montclair State before finishing on the road at Morrisville State. That's no cakewalk, but there's also no opponent there that will overwhelm Brockport.

Quick hits

Steven Webb rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns and Pat Conlan tossed three touchdowns in No. 7 Hobart's 35-13 win against RPI. The Statesmen held the Engineers to just eight first downs and forced three turnovers in the win, Hobart's 12th straight in Liberty League play. ... Joey Jones and John Dunbar each rushed for scores and No. 23 Salisbury intercepted four Hartwick passes in a 17-0 win. Nick Anzallo had two of the four picks for Salisbury, which improved to 4-0 in Empire 8 play. ... Austin Hartman rushed for 228 yards and four TDs and Brendan Irving added 154 yards on the ground as Lebanon Valley defeated Misericordia, 31-14. ... Justin Autera returned the second-half kickoff 97 yards for a score and Nick Daley kicked a pair of field goals to help Cortland State top TCNJ, 20-7. ... Michael Perkins scored on a 40-yard interception return and Zack Bacon scored on a 25-yard fumble return in Alfred's 32-7 rout of Frostburg State. Tyler Johnson tossed a pair of TDs for the Saxons, who won their second straight. ... Zack Czap kicked a 35-yard field goal in the final 30 seconds of regulation and a 29-yard field goal in overtime to lift Lycoming past Albright, 20-17. ... Withler Marcelin rushed for 173 yards and two TDs to lead Rowan to a 20-9 win over William Paterson. ... Louis Fenaroli scored on a one-yard run in the final minutes of regulation to seal Springfield's 21-20 comeback win against St. Lawrence. ... Seth Klein passed for 276 yards and two touchdowns and six different players rushed for scores in Widener's lopsided 59-14 win over FDU-Florham. ... Casey Kacz passed for 276 yards and accounted for three total TDs in Buffalo State's 34-19 win against Utica. ... Taylor Young threw two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score to Dan Curry with 27 seconds remaining, to help Wilkes knock off Stevenson, 21-17. ... Denzel Nieves rushed for 167 yards and a score and A.J. Scoppa added 109 yards and another TD in Montclair State's 34-21 victory against Morrisville State. ... Dean Kennedy passed for 176 yards and three TDs and added 85 rushing yards to lift Rochester past Union, 21-7.

Top 25: Salisbury climbs a spot

Salisbury jumped one spot to No. 23 in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll.

Hobart slipped one rank to No. 7 despite its win over RPI.

Ithaca and Lebanon Valley were the only other East region teams to receive votes in this week's poll.

Looking ahead

No. 23 Salisbury (5-2, 4-0) at Alfred (5-2, 3-1), noon, Saturday: Salisbury has allowed 10 or less points in four of its last five games, all wins. Alfred, which has won five of its last six overall, can inject itself into the mix for the Empire 8 title with a win. Salisbury won 24-21 last season.

Cortland State (4-3, 4-1) at Rowan (5-2, 3-1), 1 p.m., Saturday: It hasn't been a great year overall for the NJAC, but this matchup stands as one of the best the conference has to offer. Both are proven contenders, and this has the feel of a winner-takes-the-conference-crown type game.

Lebanon Valley (6-1, 5-1) at Delaware Valley (5-2, 4-2), 1 p.m., Saturday: The loss to King's was certainly a setback for Delaware Valley, but a win over MAC-leading Lebanon Valley would get the Aggies right back in the mix. A loss, however, would seriously hurt DelVal's conference title hopes.

Other games of note: Lycoming (5-2, 5-1) at King's (4-3, 4-2), noon, Saturday; Brockport State (4-3, 3-1) at TCNJ (4-3, 3-1), noon, Saturday; Widener (5-2, 5-1) at Albright (4-3, 3-3), 1 p.m., Saturday; Utica (3-4, 1-3) at St. John Fisher (5-2, 2-2), 2 p.m., Saturday.

Contact me

I'm always happy to hear from you, whether its questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me by email at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com and follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell).

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Andrew Lovell

Andrew Lovell is an associate news editor for ESPN.com and a former sports staff writer/editor for the New Britain Herald (Conn.). He has contributed freelance work to ESPN Rise and has been a regular contributor to D3football.com since 2007. Andrew has also written for a number of daily newspapers in New York, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ithaca Journal and Auburn Citizen. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 with B.A. in Sport Media and a minor in writing. A native of Hyde Park, N.Y., Andrew currently resides in New Britain. 

2006-10 columnist: Adam Samrov 

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