October 17, 2013

Morrisville finds reason to believe

More news about: Morrisville State
Travis French got to Paul Hamersma for a key third-down sack in the fourth quarter of Morrisville's win vs. Rowan.
Photo by Steve Samoyedny, Four Seasons Photography (for Morrisville State athletics)

Curt Fitzpatrick walked into the locker room last Saturday and surveyed his players.

He spotted the usual blood, sweat and ripped jerseys that comprise every football team at halftime. But Fitzpatrick also saw something in his players that, up until then, had been lacking -- belief.

Belief that they could build upon their 21-14 halftime lead. Belief that they could play well. Belief that they could beat perennial NJAC power Rowan.

"I'm always a glass half-full guy when it comes to what I think any team I've coached on or played on can accomplish," Fitzpatrick said. "I think having a positive attitude can help you perform above your capabilities."

Few would argue that Morrisville State boasts the most talented roster, but it's clear the team has taken to its first-year head coach. The Mustangs outscored the Profs 21-7 in the second half en route to a 41-21 victory, easily the program's finest win in recent memory.

The win also marked Morrisville State's second in a row in NJAC play, and third overall this season. To put that in perspective, the Mustangs won just four games total over the previous three seasons. Three of them came against Western Connecticut, a team that went 1-28 over the same three-year period.

Fitzpatrick, a former standout quarterback at St. John Fisher and successful offensive assistant coach, most recently at Utica, wasn't deterred by Morrisville State's difficult history.

Like the glass half-full visionary he is, Fitzpatrick instead saw an opportunity at the small college of roughly 3,000 in Morrisville, N.Y. He saw new facilities, dedicated coaches and a commitment to improving the program.

So when he was offered the job this past June, he immediately accepted. That meant leaving Utica, a rising Empire 8 program, for an annual NJAC cellar dweller.

"I didn't look at anything [from] last year," Fitzpatrick said. "I was just worried about moving forward."

Fitzpatrick made it clear to players and coaches alike, both new and returning, that everyone had a fresh start. He implemented open competitions at every position and no made promises to returning starters.

"We had open competition at every position," Fitzpatrick said. "I think that's the best way to go about it, and our kids really responded to that. They like that. Every job's got to be earned."

Morrisville State's offense, led by junior quarterback Lemar Johnson, has flourished under Fitzpatrick's guidance. Through five games, the Mustangs rank 13th nationally with 510.2 yards of total offense per game and tied for 41st with 36 points per game.

The 6-1, 185-pound Johnson, a talented but inconsistent player in his first two seasons, has emerged as one of the country's top dual-threat weapons under Fitzpatrick. Johnson gouged Rowan for 251 yards and two touchdowns through the air, and 136 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He ranks seventh nationally with 356 total yards of offense per game.

Fitzpatrick worked closely with Andrew Benkwitt over the last four years at Utica, helping him develop into a D3football.com second-team All-East selection. Though he has tailored the offense to fit Johnson's skillset, which involves more designed runs, most of the terminology remains the same.

Sophomore running Cristian Pena (682 rushing yards, 232 receiving yards, eight total TDs) and junior wide receiver Josh Powell (589 receiving yards, five TDs) have both been integral pieces in the improved offense. Pena ranks in the top 20 nationally in rushing yards per game, while Powell ranks 10th in receiving yards per game.

Fitzpatrick also praised the leadership of senior strong safety Jeremy Stewart, the team's leader in interceptions (three), and senior left guard Nate Ryan, a tone setter that Fitzpatrick called "one of the best linemen I've ever been around."

It's because of players like Stewart and Ryan, who have consistently pushed themselves despite one- and two-win seasons, that Fitzpatrick said the team must continue to strive for improvement. He wants to see their commitment rewarded.

Of course, how that reward will be measured is up for debate. As recently as two months ago, three wins through five games would stand as a monumental success for Morrisville State.

But Fitzpatrick doesn't deal in just wins and losses. He simply wants his team to reach its full potential. Whether that finally means a winning season remains uncertain. But -- surprise, surprise -- the seemingly eternally optimistic Fitzpatrick doesn't think it's out of reach.

"If you just looks at wins and losses from previous years, you would say that this season's a success already," Fitzpatrick said. "But we're hungry for more and we're not satisfied with what we've done."

Lebanon Valley holds off Lycoming

Another week, another change at the top of the MAC. At least, that's just it seems.

Lebanon Valley finished with 10 sacks and three interceptions in a 14-7 win against Lycoming on Saturday, a win the put the Flying Dutchmen atop the MAC standings -- for this week anyway.

Lycoming, by virtue of its win over Delaware Valley two weeks ago, had been in first place. Likewise, Delaware Valley had held the top spot before the loss. In short, the MAC is shaping up to be one of the closest conference races in Division III this fall. As it stands right now, only a half-game separates Lebanon Valley, Lycoming, Delaware Valley and Widener in the conference standings.

Lebanon Valley made its case that it should be the MAC favorite with its dominant defensive showing against Lycoming. The Dutchmen hounded quarterback Tyler Jenny, picking him off three times. Zach Halpin had four sacks and Frank Gaffney had three sacks among his team-high 11 tackles.

In its last two games -- both conference wins -- Lebanon Valley has allowed just 13 total points. That kind of play could very well propel the Dutchmen to the conference title.

Of course, a road game against Delaware Valley on Nov. 2 still looms large. DelVal also still must play Widener. This race is far from over.

Utica is still dangerous

If anyone thought Utica might see a drop off after the loss of quarterback Andrew Benkwitt and offensive coordinator Curt Fitzpatrick, they just need to look at the box score from the Pioneers' 44-27 win over Frostburg State this past Saturday.

First-year starting quarterback Connor Butkiewicz threw for 431 yards and two touchdowns, both to wide receiver Anthony Acevedo, who finished with 252 yards on 10 catches.

Running back Jake Larson rushed for 122 yards and five touchdowns on 32 carries. The Pioneers piled up 27 first downs and converted more than half of their third-down attempts (8 for 15). And perhaps most critically, Utica outscored Frostburg State 19-0 in the fourth quarter to pull away for the win. In the end, Utica broke nine single-game school records.

The overall record (3-2) is fine on the surface, but it's important to note the two losses came to Hobart and Salisbury, a pair of top-25, playoff-level programs. Last season, Utica finished with its first winning record since 2005. The Pioneers can certainly three of their final five games, which would again give them a winning record.

It seems unlikely that Utica will surpass Salisbury or St. John Fisher in the conference standings. But it wouldn't be surprising to see Utica win its next two games at home (Ithaca, Buffalo State) and carry some momentum into Pittsford, N.Y., for its matchup with St. John Fisher.

Also of note is that Utica entered this season with a collective heavy heart. Matt Dunn, a second-team All-East tight end last season, died in June of an enlarged heart. With their win over Frostburg State, Utica improved to 3-2, matching Dunn's No. 32 jersey number.

Union quietly playing well

It's been a strange season for the Union Dutchmen. And it's only the halfway point.

Union defeated WPI 35-6 this past Saturday, its second straight lopsided win after three frustrating losses to open the season.

Connor Eck tossed a pair of TDs to Nick Reali and T.J. Franzese rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Union's defense held WPI to just one touchdown late in the first half. 

If the Dutchmen continue to get performances like that across the board, they will be a force down the stretch. Though Union lost to St. Lawrence in its Liberty League opener, it still has a Nov. 2 home game against Hobart on the schedule. 

A win in that game would obviously stand as a considerable upset, but again, Union is playing well of late. The Dutchmen travel to Western New England this Saturday in a non-conference matchup.

Quick hits

Steven Webb rushed for 203 yards and three touchdowns to power No. 7 Hobart past Springfield, 49-21. The Statesmen held the struggling Pride to less than four yards per carry and recovered three fumbles. ... Cody Miller scored a pair of touchdowns on the ground, Kevin Francis caught five passes for 156 yards and a score, and Sean Preish returned an interception 35 yards for a TD in No. 19 St. John Fisher's 37-14 win over Hartwick. Mike Donitzen finished with three of the Cardinals' 11 sacks in a dominating defensive effort. ... John Babin caught three touchdown passes -- two from Tyler Augliano and one from Tyler Hughes -- and Jesse Scanna tallied 2.5 sacks in Cortland State's 48-14 rout of Montclair State. The Red Dragons forced six turnovers and improved to 3-0 in NJAC play. ... Joey Jones rushed for 121 yards and two TDs and Jerome Johnson added 110 yards and a score in Salisbury's 34-6 victory against Buffalo State. Steven Gamble intercepted a pair of Casey Kacz's passes to highlight a strong defensive showing by the Sea Gulls. ... Mike Lefflbine passed for 161 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Mitch Gallagher, to help St. Lawrence knock off RPI, 20-13. The Saints improved to 5-1 overall and a perfect 3-0 in Liberty League play. ... Rakim Jones finished with 170 yards and a touchdown on the ground as Ithaca churned out a 17-6 win over Alfred. ... Dean Kennedy passed for 152 yards and two TDs and added another 120 yards and two scores on the ground in Rochester's 38-13 win against Alfred State, a replacement opponent for Merchant Marine, which is still unable to play because of the government shutdown. ... Dan Andrews rushed for 282 yards and scored five total touchdowns in Brockport State's 55-34 shootout win over William Paterson. ... Ron Garrett scored on a 22-yard fumble return and Anthony Martuccio scored on a 51-yard interception return in a span of 1:15 in the third quarter as King's rolled past FDU-Florham, 52-21.

Top 25: Hobart climbs to No. 6

After three straight weeks at No. 7, Hobart climbed one spot in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll. The Statesmen have ranked no lower than No. 8 in any poll this season.

St. John Fisher, the only other East team in the top 25, jumped one spot to No. 19.

Salisbury, Lebanon Valley, Lycoming, Ithaca and Delaware Valley each received votes.

Looking ahead

No. 19 St. John Fisher (5-0, 2-0) at Salisbury (3-2, 2-0), noon, Saturday: These are the two best teams in the Empire 8, and the winner will have the inside track to the conference title. It's really as simple as that. This figures to be a great game.

Morrisville State (3-2, 2-0) at TCNJ (3-2, 2-0), noon, Saturday: Both teams are having surprisingly solid seasons to date, so this matchup looks more appealing than it did at the start of the season. TCNJ won last year's meeting 14-0, but both teams now feature new head coaches.

Ithaca (4-1, 2-1) at Utica (3-2, 1-1), 1 p.m., Saturday: This figures to be a tough matchup for Ithaca. The Pioneers are coming off an impressive win, and have shown in the past they can beat the Bombers.

Other games of note: Rochester (3-2, 1-1) at RPI (3-2, 0-2), noon, Saturday; Hartwick (4-1, 1-1) at Alfred (3-2, 1-1), 1 p.m., Saturday; No. 11 Wesley (5-1) at Rowan (3-2, 2-1), 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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