By Vin Gallo
The Pride had them. After 58 grueling minutes of wrestling the defense and restraining the offense of the brawny Husson Eagles, Springfield finally had their opponent on the ropes.
23-21 Husson. 1:55 to go in the game. The Pride had the football after their defense held the Eagles scoreless on eight plays for 30 yards on the previous drive. Springfield was set up on the Husson 34. Following three earned first downs, the Pride’s triple option offense was rolling against a team that allowed an average of 77 rushing yards per game. Springfield’s first NCAA Division III tournament victory since 2006, lay only 34 yards away.
The Pride’s Jake Eglintine screamed for the hike and center Nick Bainter made a healthy snap to the senior quarterback. With the season on the line, Springfield’s offensive unit collided with the pursuing Husson defense and a chorus of grunts amongst violent clashing of plastic pulsed across Stagg Field.
Eglintine scrabbled to his right, but the right side of the line simultaneously began to give way. He faked a throw over the middle before spotting senior Jordan Wilcox cutting down field off of a cross.
Out of time, with Wilcox being the third down play’s final hope for succession, Eglintine uncorked a pass to his fullback of eight years, his teammate dating back to their days at Saratoga Springs High School.
The throw sailed over Husson linebacker Quan Soyini and landed at Wilcox’s chest. He bobbled the ball twice before it fell toward the turf. Soyini, with a chance to redeem the play, dove to the ground and secured the football. Interception. Eagles’ ball.
Husson senior running back John Smith’s hopes to play Division I football ended long ago after tearing both ACLs in high school. Following the Soyini takeaway, he finished a 164 yard, two touchdown day by converting one final first down for the Eagles, and commencing the draining of the final seconds. Smith pumped his fists as the Husson sideline celebrated. The Eagles had done it. They had suffered 11 tortured years at the hands of Springfield, illustrated by a 1-7 all-time record against the Pride. But Husson knocked out its opponent when it mattered most, by way of a 23-21 NCAA first round victory. They will face No. 4 Delaware Valley next week.
Springfield entered the game having allowed a 24 percent third down conversion rate, good for sixth in the nation, but had difficulty containing Husson’s advancement throughout the contest. The Eagles finished 9-13 on third down, and outgained the Pride in total yards 369-264.
The Pride’s defense came up big to start the tilt, shutting out the Husson offense while surrendering 93 yards in the first quarter. While its offense was stuck in the mud in the opening frame (29 rushing yards in the first), Springfield erased two potential Husson red zone drives, and kept its attack within striking distance with forced turnovers.
With 9:00 left in the first, senior Christian Zotti (11 tackles, one forced fumble, one interception), put a massive hit on DJ Allen (30 yards) to force a Husson fumble on the Springfield 43. Following a -2 yard series by the Pride offense, Mackenzie Allioth (three tackles, one interception) followed suit of Zotti on the following Eagle drive, picking off quarterback Cory Brandon (20-30, 209 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) at the Springfield 20 yard line.
Husson drew first blood with 10:33 remaining in the second quarter when Brandon unleashed a pass over the Springfield defense to Kyle Gaudet (60 yards, one touchdown) for an easy 36 yard score. The Pride responded immediately with a 12 play, 67 yard drive, ending with Wilcox (111 yards, two touchdown) muscling through the Eagle defense for a two yard touchdown.
After a missed field goal attempt by Christian Humulock, Husson, with a 7-6 lead, retaliated with a 12 yard rush from Smith to push its advantage to 14-6 heading into halftime. By the numbers, the Eagles dominated the Pride in the first half. Husson held a 218-88 yard advantage. Brandon was 10-11 in completions, the only incomplete coming on the Allioth interception. Smith broke the 100 yard mark on 19 carries.
Though Springfield was able to shift the momentum quickly coming out of the break. By limiting Brandon to 85 passing yards, and Smith to 64 rushing yards in the second half, the Pride defense gave its offense an opportunity to storm back. It did just that.
Following a forced fumble by Christian Mowrer (seven tackles) on the Husson 18 to open the second half, it seemed as though the Eagles were close to taking control of the game’s momentum. Husson was on its way toward spinning a duplicate of dominance in the third quarter, until Zotti erased the Eagles’ possession with a pick off of Brandon at the Husson 18, and would return it all the way to the Eagles’ one yard line. Another touchdown by Wilcox, and a two point rushing conversion by Eglintine later, and Stagg’s bleachers were bumping with the score tied at 14.
The game swung in Springfield’s favor, though the Pride was unable to seize complete control of it. Springfield came one catch away from crushing Husson’s confidence for a second straight series and drowning the Eagles in Springfield cheers, by way of a third interception, but Jonny Bianchi (seven tackles) was unable to secure a pass intended for Gaulet at the Pride’s 16.
After Smith’s second touchdown of the game put the Eagles up 20-14, Husson’s Elvin Suazo Jr. (11 tackles, one forced fumble) forced and recovered a fumble on the Springfield return. The junior emerged from the pile and presented the ball to the Husson sideline as the Eagle fans roared to life. They were far from done.
The score was locked at 23-14 following a Husson field goal for the first six minutes of the final quarter. The Pride defense responded to the Eagles run by holding Husson to 40 yards on 17 plays and three points. This set up a gallant Springfield drive with 9:37 remaining in the game, ending in a 52 yard breakaway touchdown from sophomore running back Hunter Belzo (113 yards, one touchdown). After Humulock’s extra point conversion, the Pride were within two with the score 23-21 Husson.
Springfield’s defense followed up the scoring effort with a 30 yard stop of the Eagles with 3:36 left in the game. It was all in the Pride’s favor. They had gained their confidence back. The script was written for another Springfield comeback against a top team in the country. Quan Soyini took it all away on the 34 yard line. The pressure to Wilcox. The dive for the ball. The grab. In a blink of an eye, the game, and the legendary undefeated season was over.
The 2017 Springfield Pride may be gone. The team will graduate 19 seniors from the roster come May. But its mark made on the program introduced a new era and a new culture that will have a lasting effect on the teams to come. Springfield is a program with identity on and off the field. It may have been 10-0, but the team had the mentality of an underdog throughout the season.
“Our captains reestablished the culture of Springfield College Football,” said Springfield head coach Mike Cerasuolo. “It’s not the way we wanted the season to end, but the effort they put forth day in and day out, and the way they carried themselves.”
Cerasuolo constantly preached to his team to disregard the other team’s numbers and focus only on what his team could control. ‘Play for the man next to you.’ ‘Play for your ‘why.’’ It was never about stats and it was never about the record. Since its time in the Liberty League, Springfield has adopted an unfazed mindset.
“We’ve always had a decision that we have to make every day,” said senior halfback Tyler Hyde. “You can stay the same or get better, and I think every day we worked to get better, whether that was on or off the football field.”
As the Stagg Field scoreboard was switched off, and rain drizzled from the overcast sky, Springfield huddled for one final time. At the center was Luke Bradley, the Pride’s Team IMPACT teammate since 2013. While going through treatment for leukemia, Luke had watched the Pride gut out .500 records against the Liberty League’s best. They went from 5-5 (2016) to 10-0, and fought one of the nation’s 32 best to the final snap. He wasn’t going to allow his football brothers to hang their heads. From Luke’s mouth came six words that the campus as one would surely echo:
“I’m proud of all of you.”