Men's Sports Sports

Springfield football reflects on successful season

By Chris Gionta

The Springfield College football team knew what it was capable of in 2022, which is why it stung when the Pride suffered back-to-back losses to Rowan and Union in their second and third games of the season.

“We looked back on the games against Rowan and Union and that kind of fueled us, because those were two tough losses that we should have won,” said offensive lineman Lou Cocozza.

What followed were three consecutive victories decided by 40 or more points, then a 38-point win. Ultimately, Springfield racked up eight wins in a row en route to its first appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2006.

“After we lost that game to Union, we told ourselves, ‘we want to be a better team — we want to be a great team,’” said linebacker Billy Carr. “The best way to do that was just to take our practices to the next level, and I think we did that. We never really wavered. There was never like a bad day no matter what we did.”

A 49-7 blowout win over Husson put the Pride in the right direction heading into conference play. They kept up the pace with a 49-6 victory at Coast Guard, then won by their largest deficit when they defeated Norwich 69-20. It was the most points Springfield scored in a game in 20 years.

After a 45-7 victory against WPI, the conference schedule became tougher. Springfield went on the road to Merchant Marine, who had a 3-1 conference record heading into the matchup. There, the Pride trailed for the first time in five games. However, they broke away in the fourth quarter and won by the score of 27-13.

The next week, MIT was threatening an upset at Stagg Field when the Engineers took a lead into a third quarter. Yet, Springfield executed in the important moments. Christian Hutra’s go-ahead field goal was a career-long 46 yards, and Joe Maurer nabbed two interceptions in the second half, which helped lift the Pride to a 16-14 win.

Yet, the Pride’s most difficult conference test, Catholic, was still ahead of them. The Cardinals were also undefeated in the NEWMAC, and with their matchup being both teams’ final regular season games, it was a clash for the conference title.

It was a back-and-forth battle, and Catholic was driving while trailing 28-21 in the middle of the fourth quarter. At Springfield’s 22 yard-line, the Cardinals’ quarterback lobbed a fade down the sideline, but Maurer cut off the route and intercepted it.

“One of my favorite on-the-field memories was when Joe Maurer picked off that ball against Catholic,” Carr said. “You know that feeling when a big play happens and you can just feel the air get sucked out of that [opposing] team.”

On Catholic’s last chance to tie it, Tyler Pohlman grabbed an interception and ran 42 yards for a touchdown. With the 35-21 victory, the Pride were back-to-back NEWMAC Champions.

A conversation on the long bus ride back from Washington, D.C. sparked a new style for the Brotherhood.

“It just kind of got spread around on the bus ride home, and it was like ‘Oh — playoff mustaches,’” Cocozza said. “Then everyone started sending pictures to the team chat [and saying] ‘Who’s next? Who else is doing it?’”

The freshly-mustachioed men traveled to Endicott for the first round of the NCAA Tournament and provided a stout defensive effort, shutting the Gulls out in the first half en route to a 17-14 win.

“We played our best game that game defensively I think,” Carr said. “We were three-and-out after three-and-out after three-and-out… Will [McKay] stepped up big that game — he had two sacks — he played his tail off, and I think him and the whole defense as a unit was playing lights out.”

The win accomplished a year-long objective that had not been reached in 16 years.

“Our goal since last year when we made it to the first round and then lost to Cortland was to make it to Thanksgiving and have Thanksgiving at Cheney,” said linebacker DJ Brown. “It meant a lot to get to that point this year.”

For a team to go undefeated in its conference and win a playoff game, a lot of things have to come together. Much of what made the Pride successful was their mentality.

“Everyone on this team bought into [head coach Mike Cerasuolo’s] culture,” Cocozza said. “And then we took it from there — 1-0 each day.”

Nine Springfield players — Cocozza, Carr, Brown, Arsen Shtefan, Chris Eichler, Bryan Feliciano, Terrell Jacobs-Baston, Christian Hutra, and David Wells were selected as First-Team All-NEWMAC after spectacular seasons. Maurer, Dante Vasquez, and Quinn Sweeney received Second-Team All-NEWMAC honors.

Cocozza, Shtefan, and Hutra were also recognized regionally when they were selected to the 2022 New England Football Writers Association All-New England team.

Shtefan led the ground-heavy offense in rushing yards with 863, and reached the end zone eight times. The junior running back was also crucial down the stretch with 137 and 156 rushing yards respectively in the Pride’s wins over Catholic and Endicott.

Hutra was spectacular on special teams, going 13-for-14 on field goal attempts, with the lone miss coming from 45 yards out — one yard from his current career-long. Along with that, he was perfect on the 50 extra-point attempts that came his way. He also stepped in at the punter position when Springfield’s starter suffered an injury, and averaged 38.9 yards per punt. He placed eight of them within the opponent’s 20 yard-line, and only one ended up a touchback.

Cocozza — along with Chris Eichler — held firm on the left side of the offensive line in every game this season. They were both key reasons why the Pride averaged 424.2 total yards per game.

“We had a lot of guys with potential that played extremely well,” said head coach Mike Cerasuolo. “We had a lot of great senior leadership and underclassman leadership as well. We have a lot of talented football players, and they performed week-in and week-out.”

Despite a year full of success, much of what the Brotherhood will remember was what happened away from the spotlight.

“I think it’s more off-the-field stuff, less on-the-field stuff that I’ll probably remember when I’m done here,” Shtefan said.

The impact the season has had on each individual has a deeper meaning than touchdowns, tackles, and interceptions.

“We talked about it at Thanksgiving when we had a Cheney meal — never take a moment for granted as far as being able to be around people that mean so much to you, and this team means so much to each of us — players, coaches, strength coaches, and just everybody,” Cerasuolo said.

Photo: Springfield College Athletics

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