WESTFIELD, Mass. – Junior running back Travon Holder (Cheney/Hartford, Conn.) rushed for 187 yards and two touchdowns, and the Owls defense pitched shutout, as Westfield State University defeated Western Connecticut State University, 18-0 in a Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference game at Alumni Field on Friday night. Holder becomes the sixth Westfield State player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season and finishes with 1,147 yards in 10 games this year.
Westfield State finishes its season at 3-7 overall and 3-5 in the MASCAC. The Owls won three of their last five games and have won three straight at home. Western Connecticut is now 7-3 overall and 5-3 in the MASCAC. The Colonials will be under consideration for a New England Bowl bid.
With a game time temperature of 25 degrees and a cold wind chill that made it the coldest day in the history of Westfield State football, the Owls forced turnovers the first four times that Western Connecticut touched the ball, recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff, forcing a fumble on the next series, then getting an interception and another fumble recovery.
"I'm really proud of our team," said Westfield State head coach Pete Kowalski. "They didn't let the elements consume them and did what they needed to do."
"We had a great week of practice, and our seniors did a great job at our traditional ceremony after their last practice," added Kowalski. "The sentiment was to 'win it for the seniors,' but Will Tejeda spoke really eloquently and that it wasn't just to win for the seniors, but for each and every player to win it on behalf of themselves and do what they needed to do to contribute. Football is a difficult sport, but it brings us all together. That's what we did. We played in an unselfish way and played for the seniors and each other."
Westfield State senior linebacker Tyler Robbins (Valley Christian/Southwick, Mass.) came up with a pair of interceptions on the day, recovered a fumble, and had a pass breakup that nearly resulted in his third interception of the day. Owls' senior linebacker Zach Howard (David Prouty/Spencer, Mass.) made 14 total tackles in his swan song.
"Our defense, Zach Howard, Zack Kane, Will Tejeda have turned into outstanding open-field tacklers and they made some critical stops and contained the quarterback. Zach Howard is a heck of a football player."
Overall, the Owls defense limited the Colonials high-powered offense to just 199 total yards on the day, forced and recovered three fumbles, and intercepted Western Connecticut quarterback Quinn Fleeting (Windsor, Conn.) twice. Western Connecticut came into the game averaging better than 400 yards per game of total offense and nearly 37 points per game.
The Owls got their first score of the day with 3:46 left in the first quarter on a 5-yard TD run from quarterback Jake Cassidy (Lawrence Academy/Lynn, Mass.), after Robbins' interception return set the Owls up with 1st and goal from the Colonials 9-yard line.
The Owls extended the lead to 12-0 after Westfield State's Ethan Bartlett (Enfield, Conn.) blocked Jordan D'Onofrio's (Amity/Orange, Conn.) punt to set up the owls at the WCSU 16-yard line. Holder plunged in from a yard out three plays later.
The Owls capped the scoring with 1:06 left in the first half, as Holder once again dove in from a yard out.
Holder caps a standout junior year with 1,147 yards rushing, the eighth-best single season in school history. The Owls have had a total of six running backs who gained more than 1,000 yards in a season (Tim Lightfoot and Jason Votzakis did it twice apiece).
"We have been fortunate to have some great running backs in my tenure here," said Kowalski. "Tray has unbelievable vision, he's so tough, so determined, and gets so many yards after contact. I bet 800 of his 1100 yards are yards after contact. He refuses to go down, and the team rallies around him and they block downfield because of it. And he's the most humble kid and would be the first one to credit his blockers."
Westfield State honored a 10-man class of graduating seniors and their families before the game. Quarterback Phil Cohen (Valley regional-Old Lyme/Old Lyme, Conn.), defensive backs John and Sean Dillon (Cambridge Rindge and Latin/Cambridge, mass.) , TE/FB Devin Lekan (Chelmsford, Mass.) WR Tyler Bevan (Ansonia, Conn.) LB's Mark Peterson (Sandwich, Mass.), Robbins and Howard, OL Kyle Savage (Blackstone-Millville/Millville, Mass.) and safety William Tejeda (Acton-Boxborough/Princeton, Mass.) were recognized.
Duane Gary (West Haven/New Haven, Conn.) finished with 49 rushing yards on eight carries to lead the Colonials, while Fleeting completed 11-21 passes for 107 yards. Doug Katz (Masuk/Monroe, Conn.) led the Western Connecticut defense with 12 tackles.
Westfield State finished with a 38:06 to 21:04 advantage in time of possession.
"I told them before the game, if we won this one, we'd be warm all winter," said Kowalski. "Our staff did a great job preparing for this game. Our defense really progressed through the season and today was the culmination of all the hard work put in. Offensively we understood what we needed to do. We wanted to control the clock and keep Western Connecticut's offense on the sidelines. The longer you were standing still the cold just went right through you and we tried to take advantage of that."
Westfield State finishes the season with a three-game home winning streak, and won three of five games to close the year after starting 0-5.
Western Connecticut had proved a nemesis for the Owls, who had lost four straight to the Colonials since West Conn joined the MASCAC in 2013.
"The last five games we saw the three best teams in the league in Plymouth, Framingham and Western Connecticut," said Kowalski. "In the two we lost we hung in those games but made mistakes and felt like we beat ourselves. We never stopped working, never stopped improving day-in and day out. The team could have packed it in at 0-5 and they never did that. They knew they wanted to get better and it's a testament to their grit and fortitude. Each week we put the week before behind us, and set a goal to be 1-0 that week. We kept pushing forward as a team and I am really proud of them."