By Evan Wheaton
The 129th season of Springfield College football holds a special place in Mike Cerasuolo’s heart. At his fourth year as the head coach, he’s sending off his first four-year cycle of players under his leadership.
With 24 seniors on the team preparing for graduation, the faces will be vastly different next year. Despite the personnel that come and go year-in and year-out, the values that have been deeply rooted into the program remain prevalent.
And it’s largely due to this particular group of seniors that are stepping away.
“We have a lot of young talent coming in and I think one of the best things about that senior group is that they built the culture,” Cerasuolo said. “We all had a vision when they first arrived here of how we want to run the football program and how we want to build this brotherhood. And they bought in, so they kind of set a standard that we’re following now. When you have guys like them, and they kind of teach the younger guys and develop them within the group, that’s what will stand the test of time.”
After going 1-3 at the beginning of the year, as well as dropping their first NEWMAC matchup against WPI 35-21, it was a rocky start for Springfield.
From there, however, the Pride rode a five-game winning streak in which they bolstered the No. 1 rushing attack in Division III football, averaging 362 yards per game on the ground. Their run game was also ranked third across all divisions in college football.
“Obviously it’s a great accomplishment for the entire team because it takes everybody to make that work as far as whether it’s the scout team, whether it’s the defensive look, whether it’s the offensive players and the coaching staff,” Cerasuolo said. “So it’s quite an accomplishment and I think early on in the season we were like, ‘Wow, we’re rushing for a lot, we just aren’t able to finish the drives.’
“And turnovers in the green zone and things like that, and all of a sudden things started to pick up and we started putting things together in the last half of the season and it really shows the type of offense we’re capable of having and it finally came together and clicked a little bit.”
With Hunter Belzo going down on the first offensive snap against Kean in the second game of the season, he subsequently missed the remainder of the year. Despite this, he played a vital role in developing the younger talent as well as the personnel in the backfield that had to step up in his absence.
“Losing Hunter, obviously a tremendous kid, tremendous worker, tremendous running back, but like we say with most of our kids here, that as good a football player (as he is), he’s a better person and teammate,” Cerasuolo said. “And I think Hunter showed that. He was at everything, team-organized events and whatnot trying to help the younger guys and the guys that were ultimately replacing him.”
After taking a semester off of school, Belzo will utilize another year of eligibility to return to the field as a member of team 130.
“He did whatever we asked of him and tried to help everyone on the team so that they could continue to improve in his absence,” Cerasuolo said. “So it’ll be great to get him back next year.”
Last year, Belzo was pivotal in the Pride’s success, taking on a foreign role of starting quarterback in Chad Shade’s place, as the latter was out for the season due to injury. Taking the field again this year, Shade started all 10 games, in which he finished with 771 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 182 carries. He also amassed 456 yards and seven touchdowns through the air across 19 completions.
Towards the beginning of the season, David Wells was taking snaps here and there, sharing playing time with Shade. Shade still has one year of availability, although he is weighing his options regarding a possible return. If he does step away, Wells is slated to fill his shoes next year.
“David is more than poised to take advantage of the opportunity that’s going to be presented to him,” Cerasuolo said. “We were rotating him early on in the season because both of them, they’re equally as talented.
“David is an excellent quarterback, we just wanted more gelling as an offense, we need to get one guy the majority of the reps so that they can gel and obviously get that consistency and continuity with the other guys within the team so that was the only reason we went with the one quarterback. But David is more than ready to go.”
Before going on to win five straight games and outscoring their opponents 191-93 along the way, the Pride looked themselves over in the mirror. Entering their second NEWMAC game against Norwich, Springfield had to discover their identity.
“We talked to the kids after that 1-3 start and said we’ll find out who we really are and if our culture is real because we talk about compete, battle, finish, do everything with pride, passion, and purpose,” Cerasuolo said. “And those kids showed that. They showed who we really are as a football program and as a team.”
Regardless of the outcome of their final game against MIT, in which the Springfield fell 43-40, the Pride did what they set out to do several weeks beforehand. In a way, Cerasuolo’s first four-year cycle of players withstood their final test – holding onto who they were when their identity and culture was in question.
With the help of the upperclassmen, improved coaching, and everyone else stepping up, the team rediscovered itself and what it means to be the Brotherhood.
“They rallied to get those five-straight and it was a combination of offense performing well and defensively really understanding what we were trying to do within the defensive schemes and tactics, and we did a better job coaching it as well,” Cerasuolo said. “We weren’t coaching it as well as we could’ve early on in the season so everything really started to come together and it was nice to see it. It was nice to see that culture does win over the games and scoreboard and things like that.”
The end of the season also marks the retirement of Defensive Coordinator Jack Holik, who spent 37 years with the program.
With so many strong members of the Brotherhood moving on, as well as Cerasuolo’s first cycle of recruits, the program will have a lot of moving pieces between now and the start of the 2020 season in terms of scouting, recruiting, and having young talent adopt the culture of Springfield College football.
“We’re constantly building a Brotherhood,” Cerasuolo said. “It’s never, ‘We’ve arrived.’ So we have some work to do to continue to build it but we have the right people in place as far as the kids and the coaches.”
With team 130 on the horizon, there will be numerous new faces in the absence of the substantial graduating class.
Yet the values will remain the same.
Featured photo courtesy Josh Alvarado