|Sophomore Joseph Ortiz proved that the future remains bright, delivering his best game of the season in the quarterfinals.
Brockport Athletics photo
By Joe Sager
Brockport is the national semifinals for the first time in program history.
But, reaching this point has been a process for the Golden Eagles.
“It’s an amazing feeling. I am still trying to grasp a hold of it,” Brockport senior linebacker Nathaniel Keith III said. “The journey is still going. I just put it up to my team. We all came together. We’re going to keep that going and, hopefully, it gets us to the championship game.”
Brockport (13-0) visits Belton, Texas, to take on top-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-0) on Saturday for the right to advance to the Stagg Bowl.
“It has us pumped,” Keith said. “We try not to put them on a pedestal. If we do, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We’re here, too, and they have to look at us as well. They are a great team. They are in the playoffs and doing great things every year.
“Also, Brockport is here, too.”
Becoming a factor in the national championship race each year is a goal for the Golden Eagles. It’s something head coach Jason Mangone and his assistants targeted when they took over the program in 2013.
“Every step along the way has been fun. We’re in unchartered territory for our program. It’s been great,” Mangone said. “The guys are enjoying it. We are enjoying it. We’re staying focused on the task at hand, but trying to enjoy it as much as possible.”
In Mangone’s first year, Brockport went 8-2. After that, the Golden Eagles produced a pair of 5-5 campaigns. While the outcomes weren’t great, those two years laid the groundwork for this season. They served as a checkpoint for the players’ dedication to the program – either you’re all in or you’re all out.
“We didn’t have more than 11 seniors either of those years. We didn’t want to sacrifice the seasons, but we wanted to go into each game with guys fully committed and guys who wanted to win and build,” Mangone said. “The wins didn’t pile up, but the culture was being established in terms of how we wanted to run things with who we wanted to run with.”
While the lack of upperclassmen didn’t help the team in the win column, it provided opportunity for the younger committed players.
“When we weren’t doing so well those couple of years, it was easy for others to quit and go on and just be a student,” Keith said. “That gave the underclassmen more time to adjust to the system and find out what the plays were early and know all our positions. We adapted quickly to our system. We’ve had experience at a young age.”
|Seniors like Jake O'Connell have set the tone for underclassmen like Ortiz.
Brockport Athletics photo
Those younger Golden Eagles got a baptism by fire as the team transitioned to the Empire 8 Conference.
“A lot of the seniors doing very well today were playing maybe earlier than they had to be. They took some lumps,” Mangone said. “Maybe for some of those seniors, that may not have been what they wanted to happen. But, going through those two years of 10-10 football, maybe it motivated them even more. I think that all has paid off now with how early they had to play and step in and do well.”
Progress was evident last season. Brockport finished 7-4 and all of its losses were by a touchdown or less.
“Unfortunately, when you’re losing games, you do learn a lot. When we went 5-5 those two years, there were some close losses in there. Last year, we lost all four of our games in the last five minutes of the game,” Brockport senior left tackle James Grennan said. “We felt that, if we could clean up a few things and really commit ourselves this offseason, there’s no telling what we could do.”
The Golden Eagles took another step this year and it’s left them as one of four teams still playing, thanks to Brett Renzi’s 33-yard field goal as time expired on Saturday.
“It’s pretty great. I’ve never played football this long in a season,” Grennan said. “It has definitely been a process. This is a great challenge for us. It’s time for us to show Brockport is the real deal and we can go out with these guys and beat them.”
The building process hasn’t stopped for Brockport, though. Mangone was back on the recruiting trail Monday night after practice.
“If we don’t do our due diligence today, it will hurt us in the future. People don’t see how many phone calls you make or how many hours you spend in the office all year in the recruiting process. All they see is the three hours you spend on the sidelines on Saturday. We work our tails off for 30 hours a year. We just hope to make it 33, 36 and 39 hours and now 42 hours,” he said. “It takes hundreds and thousands of hours by so many people to be where we are now. It’s hard to take a step back currently because we have work to do today to be successful tomorrow in order to be successful on Saturday.
“It’s gratifying work, especially when you go to graduation and see all the kids walk across the stage. There are so many victories you won’t see in the win-loss column and it requires the work of so many great coaches and administrators and all the sacrifice the players put into this thing to get to this point.”
The seniors hope the successful run continues after this season.
“I definitely feel they can. They just have to buy into it and realize it’s a grind. We didn’t get here in one year,” Grennan said. “I hope they see that. There’s a talented group of freshmen. If they buy in like we did, there’s no telling what this program could do in the next few years.”
This senior class has raised the bar and elevated the program to unprecedented heights. Their legacy is cemented, but not yet finished.
“The growth from my freshman to senior year is tremendous. Each year we’ve progressed. As a senior, I feel like we’re passing down the torch,” Keith said. “We have some really good young players. I want to come back 15 years from now and still see the program demolishing teams and keeping the legacy going.”