|Western New England is making
its playoff debut after winning the NEFC in dramatic
WNE photo by Ken Cerino
Western New England and Norwich University took the field against one another for the season opener on Sept. 3 with big dreams. WNE won the game 28-24, but both teams realized the dream: the first NCAA playoff berth in the history of their programs.
The Western New England players and coaches squeezed into their Hall of Fame room to watch the selection show on Sunday night and the Cadets watched the show in their locker room.
They both knew they were in the 32-team field as the result of winning their conference championship. Still, there was suspense and excitement. This isn't old hat. This isn't Mount Union or Whitewater.
"It was exciting. There were butterflies before the announcement and there were butterflies after," Norwich coach Mark Murnyack said.
It marked the end of a whirlwind weekend for the Golden Bears. They won their first New England Football Conference title by edging Framingham State 20-13 when Bryce Brown ran one in from 12 yards out in overtime.
"It was the first time I have been involved in an overtime as coach," WNE's Keith Emery said.
Brown had 104 rushing yards and 160 more passing in picking up the game's MVP plague.
Now, they go into a place where teams in their program have never gone. The Golden Bears get to go to Salisbury and the Cadets to Delaware Valley.
Emery knows what is coming at him. He sees it each year when WNE plays Maine Maritime. It's the triple option attack and Salisbury was the scourge of the Empire 8 by deploying that offense.
"Salisbury runs the same offense as Springfield and Maine Maritime," Emery said. "They execute it very well."
Emery was caught off guard when the brackets came up showing Salisbury as the opponent. "I was half expecting to be playing Kean," Emery said. "I was thrown off a little."
The Golden Bears take a school-record nine wins into the game.
"It was exciting to see Western New England pop up on the screen," Emery said. "I was just disappointed personally because I thought we would be a higher seed."
The stirring overtime win and the soccer team hosting an NCAA playoff game has caught the attention of the student body.
"There is a lot of NCAA fever on campus," Emery said.
He knows the challenge this week is an imposing one.
"Their talent level is a little different than what we see," Emery said. "They execute very well. We've got our hands full."
As do the Cadets against unbeaten Delaware Valley.
The Cadets finished their season a week earlier than WNE, clinching the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference title with a road win against SUNY-Maritime. That was a wonderful bus ride from New York City to Vermont following that 16-9 victory.
"There were a lot of cell phone calls and texting going on. The players were getting a lot of congratulatory messages," Murnyack said. "It was a great day for our program and for everyone who ever wore the maroon and gold."
It was also pretty exciting when Delaware Valley came up as the Cadets' opponent.
"They are balanced and they are a great football team. You don't go through their league unbeaten unless you are," Murnyack said.
"But we are excited about the opportunity to compete on the national level. I know our kids are going to play hard.
"There are no bad football teams now."
After losing every game since starting the program in 2009, Anna Maria has won two in a row. The AmCats edged winless Husson 30-28 as quarterback Santino Simone passed for two scores and ran for another.
Mount Ida also won in the ECFC, outgunning Castleton 54-34.
Castleton has seen way too much of the Mustangs' Johrone Bunch. He had an unforgettable performance against the Spartans in 2009 when he rushed for 351 yards and five touchdowns. This time he ran for 219 yards and four touchdowns.
Castleton quarterback Shane Brozowski threw for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Brandon Boyle caught three of those TD passes.
Jamie Spanopoulos rushed for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the other ECFC game as the Privateers edged Gallaudet 21-14.
Amherst defeated Williams 31-18 in the Biggest Little Game in America to finish 8-0, its second perfect season in three years.
This was the 126th meeting bewteen the Lord Jeffs and the Ephs of Williams.
Eric Bunker rushed for 107 yards for the Jeffs and teammate Matt Rawson was special on special teams. He kicked a 39-yard field goal and twice pinned the Ephs inside the 20 with his punts.
Middlebury reached the .500 mark with two seconds left. The Panthers got to 4-4 when Remi Ashkar ran in for the late score and a 19-17 victory over Tufts.
Panther quarterback McCallum Foote completed 34 passes for 314 yards and a touchdown. Billy Chapman was his biggest target. He had 109 of those yards as well as the touchdown grab.
Only Amherst upstaged Trinity in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. The Bantams finished 7-1 by pitching their fourth shutout, 27-0 over Connecticut rival Wesleyan.
That defense has been the talk of the league and Tim Finnucan was a large piece of the effort on this day with 13 tackles, two sacks, four tackles for a loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. And if all that was not enough, he blocked a field goal.
Not to be outdone by his brother up in Williamstown that day, Evan Bunker gained 138 yards on the ground for the Bantams.
It was also an amazing 43rd straight victory for Trinity at home.
Elsewhere in the NESCAC, Pat Noone rushed for 83 yards, had 83 more in receptions and had a touchdown in Bowdoin's 20-10 victory over Colby. Hamilton took down Bates 28-15 as Jordan Eck fired three touchdown passes.
Still, the 3-5 record was Bates' best mark since 2002.
And now it's The Road to Salem.
It might be a short one for Norwich and Western New England. That certainly is what everyone expects.
But they both had dreams when they took the field in Springfield, Mass., back on Sept. 3. No reason to stop dreaming now.