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Mariners navigating unexpected path

More news about: Merchant Marine
Merchant Marine coach Mike Toop understands what the student body has to go through at a service academy, since he graduated from Kings Point himself.
Merchant Marine athletics photo 

As we enter Week 8 of the Division III football season, most of the usual suspects for conference titles around eastern conferences are in the running.

Albright, Alfred, Christopher Newport, Delaware Valley, Hobart, Rowan, Salisbury, St. John Fisher, St. Lawrence, Stevenson, and Wesley are familiar names.

At the start of the season, you wouldn’t have expected to see Merchant Marine on that list.

But as they enter Saturday’s game against St. Lawrence, the Mariners have earned their way on.  At 4-2 and 3-1 in the Liberty League they are having their best season since 2003, the last time the program posted a winning season.

Each of the team’s last three games have been decided in the final 20 seconds of the game. The Mariners have won the last two on Jake McDonough field goals after falling to Hobart.

“We didn’t have a great record last year,” said coach Mike Toop, whose team went 3-6. “But I thought we were a tough out.

“We just came back with a mindset that was ‘refuse to lose.’ We didn’t play well in one game (a 20-16 loss to SUNY-Maritime) and just didn’t close the deal at Hobart. It would have been easy to get down but we came back with two great wins. It’s a credit to our kinds, their mindset and determination.”

Aside from a 55-7 victory over Rochester, every game the Mariners have been has been decided by four points or fewer.

“You’ve got to be mentally tough,” said senior linebacker Josh Woodburn. “We’re in a good league, nobody’s going to hand you a win. We expect to be in tight games. You’ve got to be ready for it.”

Woodburn is the leading tackler on a defense ranked 23rd in D-III in rush defense and that allows a respectable 322 yards a game

Not many 18-year-olds would sign out for the rigors of an academy life: a 6:15 wake-up call for inspection every morning, drill, and a trimester schedule that puts finals a couple days after preparation for the program’s biggest game since 2002.

“We don’t make any excuses for it,” said Toop, who played linebacker at the school in the ’70s  and climbed the ladder to D-I coaching success during the 1980s and '90s at places such as Penn. He returned 12 years ago to take the head spot at Kings Point.

“That’s the way it is. We know that going in. I think that’s why it’s special for me to be back here. Just to see what these guys do on a day-in and day-out basis.”

The demands of an academy education can provide benefits such as active duty in any branch of the service for working on merchant vessels. For senior tight end Robert Baker, a team captain football is often an escape from the rigors of class and drill.

“I love playing football here,” said Baker, a native of Worcester, Mass. “It’s been the best part about going to school at Kings Point because it’s the best part of the day. I can let my mind go.”

“With all the graduation options and the opportunity to play football,” added Woodburn, who hails from Huntingtown, Md. “I’m glad I choose this place.”

“I wear the ring,” said Toop, who initially thought he’d continue on the Division I coaching path before returning his alma mater. “It’s a special place. I can relate to what the guys go through on a daily basis. The basic dynamics of the place haven’t changed since it opened.”

On offense, the Mariners triple option attack has propelled them 351 rushing yards a game, good enough for third in D-III. Toop admits he likes to throw the ball, but that after trying pro sets and the spread this system best fits their personnel. He scraped traditional offense midway through the 2010 season and it’s made the program more competitive.

“We run up tempo,” Baker said. “We feel that we’re in good shape. As a smaller team, our average O-line man is 250 pounds, so we’re a disadvantage right there. But we use it to our advantage because we work up-tempo. We feel we’re in better shape than the other guys toward the end of the game. We wear them down.”

Brice Moore has been a big bost at quarterback for Merchant Marine, averaging 220.5 yards of total offense per game in the Mariners' triple-option attack.
Merchant Marine athletics photo by Jeffery Stoner

This week the Mariners not only face perhaps their biggest test of the season in No. 16 St. Lawrence but also one of their biggest rivals. The two teams play each year for the Hoffman Cup, started by a son who went to St. Lawrence to honor his father who went to Kings Point. Last year, the Mariners hung in the game with the playoff-bound Saints before falling 21-14. St. Lawrence leads the series 7-5 with Merchant Marine’s last victory coming in 2012.

“We’re getting ready for a game against the best team in the league and out guys are amping up for finals,” Toop said. “It’s a big game obviously. They’ve done a phenomenal job the last few years.

“Right now, they don’t have a weakness. They score points on special teams. They score points on defense. Offensively they haven’t missed a beat with Richardson replacing Lefflbine. They’ve got great targets in the pass game. Their guys up front are really good. We have our work cut out for us.”

But you get the feeling these guys will embrace the challenge. This season holds the best of both worlds for the program, a trophy game with conference title and playoff implications.

“It the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve been in the nix this late in the season,” Baker said. We’ve been dialed in all year, but this week is a big one. There’s a sense of urgency and feeling of intensity.

“As a senior and captain, this is right where we want to be,” said Woodburn. “We’re in the mix. We couldn’t be more excited. We’re playing for the playoffs.”

Games to Watch

No. 25 Delaware Valley (5-1, 4-1 MAC) at No. 15 Stevenson (6-0, 5-0 MAC): A sold-out homecoming crowd for the Mustangs, who have already topped other MAC contenders Albright and Widener, will see their team face their toughest challenge of the season. The Aggies are a last second Albright touchdown from making this a matchup of two unbeaten teams. If they can win, it sets up an interesting tiebreaker scenario, provided if Albright and this pair win out. The Aggies won 18-15 last season on a touchdown with 43 seconds left.

Utica (5-2, 3-2 E8) at Buffalo State (4-2, 2-2 E8): The winner here still has an outside chance (low and outside) at the E8 title. The Pioneers snapped a two-game losing streak by knocking off previously unbeaten St. John Fisher last week. The Bengals have won two straight since falling to the Cardinals by four.

Wesley (4-2, 4-1 NJAC) at No. 21 Rowan (5-1, 4-1 NJAC): The Wolverines have never won in Glassboro. Wesley has scored 152 points the last three weeks, while allowing just 26. The key has been a bruising rushing attack and big plays by playmaking receiver Bryce Shade. The Profs just seem to find a way to win. The offense isn’t flashy, but the defense has forced 15 turnovers and had been great on third down.

Christopher Newport (5-1, 4-1 NJAC) at Frostburg St. (5-1, 4-1 NJAC): Are the Bobcats for real? They’ll get to prove it over the next four weeks with the Captains, Rowan, Montclair St. and Salisbury left. Outside of Montclair, they’ll play all their games at home. CNU, who escaped in OT last week against the Red Hawks, have scored just 15 points a game since starting 3-0. The Bobcats won last year 19-14.

Springfield (4-3, 3-1 LL) at Hobart (5-1, 2-1 LL): The Statesmen have lived dangerously this season and it finally caught up with them two weeks ago in a 21-17 last second loss to RPI. They’ll face another triple option offense after giving up 35 to Merchant Marine earlier this season. Still if Hobart wins out they’ll take home the LL title and another playoff bid. The Pride offense is on a roll after scoring 70 last week. They too can earn at least a shared of the conference crown if they win out.

Jason Bowen

Jason Bowen has 10 years of Division III coaching experience at Wesley, where he was also the Sports Information Director. He currently provides color analysis on broadcasts of Wesley games on WDEL Radio 1150AM and has served as a staff and freelance writer for the Delaware State News in Dover. He has been a contributor for D3football.com since 2006. By day he teaches high school biology. He is a 1992 graduate of and three-year letter winner at linebacker for Mansfield (Pa.) University.

2006-10 columnist: Adam Samrov
2011-14 columnist: Andrew Lovell

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