SPRINGFIELD — Mike Cerasuolo enters his fourth year as head coach for the football team. After succeeding Mike DeLong’s 32-year tenure at the helm of the program, Cerasuolo is going to see the freshmen he entered with as seniors.
“It’s basically his first recruiting class, which is a pretty big deal as a head coach for sure,” senior tight end Tanner Jillson said. “The good thing, I think, is making the transition from coach Long (DeLong) to coach C (Cerasuolo), they have the same coaching philosophy in terms of who they’re bringing in as recruits.”
Students often talk about a “full high school/college cycle,” which would be four years. Jillson transferred into Springfield College for the Spring 2018 semester and played last season, although had he been with the Pride from the start of his college career, he would be among the freshmen that started after DeLong’s retirement.
“I definitely think that for some of the four-year seniors, it’s a big deal,” Jillson said. “It’s a big deal for coach C (Cerasuolo) and kind of where we’re trying to take the program and grow as one of the top teams in New England and the northeast, and hopefully be a playoff contender for the rest of his coaching career here.”
Coming off a 17-14 New England Bowl win against Maritime, the program has a bright future under Cerasuolo. With the impressive 8-3 season in the past, it’s time to get the players ready for another campaign.
“Obviously the first day is just getting the kids back onto campus and seeing the work they’ve done over the course of the summer,” Cerasuolo said the day before players moved in for preseason. “Just reuniting with them, continuing to build the relationships with the current guys and then the new guys… really excited to get the guys back on campus and get going with not only the on-the-field stuff, but the off-the-field stuff, and then some of the things that we believe in as a program.”
Senior Chad Shade will return to the quarterback position after playing in just four games last season due to injury. Shade has proven to be a vital piece of the Pride’s offense, having rushed the ball 63 times for 401 yards in his 2018 stint as well as being voted National Athlete of the week by D3football.com.
“Getting Chad back as healthy as we can get him for this Fall is a huge deal, just because of how big an impact he was last season only playing a couple of games,” Jillson said. “He played really well before he got hurt.”
Halfback Hunter Belzo ended up filling in as quarterback for the Pride for much of the 2018 season. With Shade healthy, he will be returning to his familiar position in the backfield. The senior recently received Preseason All-America recognition from FreeAgentFootball.com.
“You always have Hunter in your back pocket if ever need be because he took a lot of snaps for us last year,” Cerasuolo said. “(He) did an unbelievable job being put into a role that wasn’t familiar with him in an uncomfortable situation and made it comfortable for himself and his team.”
Shade has been rehabbing and Belzo has become a very versatile asset to the team. Between the two of them, the Pride will have more strength behind the offensive line heading into the season.
“Having them both in the backfield as kind of separate weapons is a really impactful thing for our offense,” Jillson said. “It’s really going to be beneficial and hopefully we can keep Chad as healthy as possible throughout the season because he’s a huge impact player for our offense. His overall speed and athleticism is something that I don’t think a lot of teams have.”
A notable loss on for the Pride is defensive end Nick Giorgio, having graduated last year. Giorgio was arguably one of the greatest student-athletes in program history, having gained interest from the NFL after his remarkable collegiate career.
Senior center Nick Bainter will emerge as a three-year starter, having never missed a game in the past two seasons as well as playing in eight games during his freshman year. He was recently selected to the D3football.com Preseason All-America First Team, the fourth student-athlete in program history to hold the honor.
Bainter will continue to be a prevailing force on the offensive line heading into the 2019 season.
The Pride will remain local for the first two weeks, visiting Western New England and hosting Kean. They will face a tough task on the road on Sept. 21 when they travel to New York to play against Union.
Union’s defense held the Pride to just 126 total yards of offense (all rushing) in their last meeting on Stagg Field in the 2018 campaign. Despite the steep competition early in the season, Cerasuolo has stressed that he hasn’t circled any dates on the calendar for big games.
“I don’t want to sound cliché but we don’t really talk too much about the opponents,” Cerasuolo said. “You know, obviously we do scouting reports and breakdowns on opponents, but we have to concern ourselves with us before anybody else.”
The quarterback and halfback positions aren’t the only ones on the roster that will see changes from last year. Cerasuolo is optimistic about the incoming freshmen class and what they have to offer the rest of the team.
“We’re very fortunate that we have a lot of guys that will be competing for that (QB) spot and all spots on the team,” Cerasuolo said. “We tell everybody that depth is for a day, and that anything you get here, you’re going to earn.”
Cerasuolo has already experienced a lot of success within the NEWMAC. In 2017, he led the Pride to 10-0 regular season as well as a NCAA D-III tournament berth — the first since 2006. With key players making returns as well as a promising freshman class, the Pride remain optimistic.
Featured photo courtesy Sam Leventhal