After a hard reset, Union off and running

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Union's defense converging on Coast Guard's quarterback
Jake Lombardo, right, and other Union upperclassemen suffered through a pretty dismal 2015.
Union athletics photo

By Jason Bowen

Surviving a winless the 2015 season wasn’t easy for Union linebacker Jake Lombardo and his teammates.

“That was definitely not a pleasant experience,” the senior said. “Having to go home, all your friends know you play college football and ask how the season is going.”

There isn’t too much to be proud of when you’ve won just five games in three seasons. And this at a program that had been synonymous with winning throughout it most of its storied history

Now when he returns home, Lombardo will have much more to talk about.

With a 30-6 victory last Saturday over St Lawrence, Union has won five straight games in as many weeks matching their total of the past three seasons. Their only loss was 20-7 in their opener to Husson.

The program hit the reset button with the 2016 hiring of Jeff Behrman from the staff of Stony Brook. Despite a late start, the program showed improvement last year with three wins.

Also showing improvement was Lombardo. The 6-0, 215-pound middle linebacker spent his freshman year on the scout team before getting limited time as a sophomore.

But as junior he broke out. Lombardo, a bioengineering major, was one of only three players in the Liberty League to top 100 tackles last year. This season, he leads the team with 61, double that of anyone else on the team.

“He has exceeded every expectation I and our defensive staff had for,” Behrman said of the senior, who recorded 21 tackles in Union’s final game last season. “By the end of the year, he was out most productive player on defense.

“He’s an old school, throwback type of linebacker – hard-nosed and physical. He’s been playing with a club on his hand for the last four weeks and he hasn’t missed a beat.”

The fresh start brought “a new sense of hope’ to the program heading into this season according to Lombardo. The energy and positivity around last season has carried over into the season.

“It’s contagious, once you start winning it’s a snowball effect,” Lombardo said.

And though the culture of the program has improved, there were still some concerns heading into the season, mainly youth. Half the roster is made up of freshman, including three starters on the offensive line. The Dutchmen are probably ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process.

“If you were going to tell me that we were going to have the success that we are having right now, I would have taken it,” Behrman admitted. “These guys have grown up pretty quickly.

“Right now, we have a group of guys committed to playing college football and getting better every day.”

The second-year coach credits great senior leaders like Lombardo needed to win games, and improve the team chemistry.

As a captain, you have to speak up sometimes,” said Lombardo, who considers himself a leader by example. “I let my actions speak for themselves most of the time.”

The senior was quick to credit the play of the defensive line as a reason for his productivity.

“It doesn’t happen if O-linemen are getting up on you,” he said. “They’ve done a great job of taking up blockers.”

While the offense continues to mature, Behrman credits the play of his defense and coordinator Rick Flanders, who came to the staff after a long successful stint in the Ivy League schools like Yale and Penn, as key to the team’s success on the field.

“He probably forgotten more about football, than I know.”

At 5-1, the program finds itself in position to secure its first winning season since 2012 if they can defeat Rochester on the road Saturday.

“It would be huge,” Lombardo said. “But I feel every win is huge. We’re not satisfied, we appreciate it but there’s still a lot of work to do. There’s no reason we can’t win every time we step on the field.”

Still, they know the road ahead will be tougher. After Rochester, they finish the year with Hobart, Ithaca and RPI.

“We’re still not where I expect us to be,” Behrman said. We have to get a lot better. We will try to focus on us and improve in all three phases of the game.”

So though a Liberty League championship would be a lot to ask for a program that was 0-10 just two seasons ago, the Dutchmen are heading in the right direction again.

Games This Week

King's (3-3, 2-3 MAC) at No. 10 Delaware Valley (6-0, 5-0) The Monarchs have the ability score points, they’ve put up at least 30 in all but one contest this season, but they haven’t seen a defense like the Aggies since they played Stevenson. Interestingly, only winless Wilkes is the only MAC team has been in the game in the fourth quarter against DVU.

Morrisville State (2-3, 0-2 E8) at No. 13 Brockport (5-0, 3-0) The Mustangs have the ability to put points on the board (37.4/game) so the Brockport defense will be challenged. Quarterback Brandon Gwinner should top the 1000 yard mark in passing and 500 yard mark in rushing this week. The junior has accounted for 15 touchdowns this season, while running back Nick Edmond has averaged 120 yards a contest with nine touchdowns. The Golden Eagle defense ranks fifth in D-III against the run, after surviving their biggest scare this season a couple of weeks ago against Cortland. The Eagles were able to overcome a 14-point first half deficit as an offense loaded with playmakers put up 35 in the second half.

Kean (2-3, 2-2 NJAC) at No. 14 Wesley (4-1, 4-0) Despite winning seven-plus games and a bowl each of the past two seasons, the Cougars have not figured out Wesley being outscored 104-31. Linebacker Darin Hungerford continues to be one defensive players in the country, leading Kean in tackles, sacks (4) and TFLs (10.5). Wesley leads the NJAC in both total offense and defense but will have to avoid homecoming distractions and a letdown after an emotion overtime win over Frostburg.

No. 17 Alfred (5-0, 3-0 E8) at Cortland (3-2, 2-1) The Red Dragons bounced back from a loss to Brockport to smash Buffalo St. last week. Dan Appley has blocked a D-III best three kicks this season and Cortland still in the E8 race if they can get some help. The Saxons have won 15 straight regular season games, but the offense may have to score more than this week. Alfred has scored more than 24 just once this season. However their defense is tops in the E8 in both total and scoring defense.

No. 18 Frostburg State (4-1, 3-1 NJAC) at William Paterson (0-5, 0-4) Not much to say here. With no intention in being disrespectful to the Pioneers, but this is not the week to host the Bobcats, who are still smarting from last week’s loss to Wesley. Expect Frostburg runners Jamaal Morant and Gavin Lavat to pile up the yards.

Stevenson (3-2, 3-1 MAC) at Lebanon Valley (2-3, 2-2) So the Mustangs have disappointed against ranked opponents this season, but they have outscored the unranked 155-30. Stevenson ranks number one in the MAC is just about every team statistical category. The Flying Dutchmen have beaten the teams that you imagine they would and hung with Widener last week by winning the time of possession. They also lead the conference in turnover margin at plus-seven.

Lycoming (3-3, 3-2 MAC) at Widener (4-2, 4-1) The Pride still holds their destiny in their own hands and can win at least a share of the MAC if they win out. The defense makes plays in the backfield and the quarterback play has improved over last season. The Warriors have won three straight and look to avoid their third straight losing season. The offense is coming around after scoring 126 points in the last three games.

Utica (2-3, 1-2 E8) at St. John Fisher (0-5, 0-3) The Pioneers got their first victory against the Cardinals last season by knocking off an undefeated nationally ranked team. The Cardinals have only won two games since then and have lost seven straight.

TCNJ (0-5, 0-4 NJAC) at Rowan (3-2, 2-2) The winless Lions gave Montclair St. a run for their money last week and led by 10 at one point. They face a Prof team with a similar profile, a physical defense and inconsistent offense.        

Salisbury (4-1, 4-0 NJAC) at Montclair State (3-2, 3-1) The winner of this game will control their own destiny with both Wesley and Frostburg left on their schedules. Both defenses rank high nationally, a trend in the NJAC this season, while the offenses have struggled.

Union (5-1, 1-0 LL) at Rochester (2-3, 0-1) The Dutch can guarantee a winning season for the first team in five years. Paul Mokrzycki is among the top punters in D-III with a 41.6 yard average for the Yellow Jackets, who were blasted by Ithaca last week.

Ithaca (3-2, 3-0 LL) at RPI (3-2, 0-1) The Bombers are gaining stream after dropping their first two of the season, while the Engineers have dropped two straight after a 3-0 start.

Hobart (4-2) at Hartwick (3-3) A matchup of two of the top quarterbacks in the East. Shane Sweeney completed passes to 12 different receivers last week, while Billy Pine averages nearly 330 yards a game. Enjoy the air show in this nonconference tilt.

Buffalo State (3-2) at St. Lawrence (1-4) Another E8/Liberty League crossover between teams looking for a win. The Saints have as many losses this season as they had the past two combined. The Bengal offense has sputtered the past two weeks in losses to Cortland and Alfred.